Four long white folding tables line the perimeter of the large training room. When we gather as a group the tables are piled with 70 backpacks. We learned in our first few days in Thailand that placing things like that on the floor is not riap roi (appropriate for Thai culture). So they are stacked on the tables throughout our training sessions. Vacant chairs are also used, anything that keeps the bags up off of the floor. At breaks and at lunch everyone rushes to their bags to grab their phones, tablets or laptops. We disappear back into our American lives for a few minutes, connecting with family and friends thousands of miles away.
These backpacks are a mainstay for Peace Corps volunteers; everyone has one. Each one different from the next; 70 volunteers here in Thailand, 70 personalities, and 70 different backpacks. Some are high tech with separate, cushioned sleeves for electronics and side pockets for water bottles. Some are waterproof, some not, but surprisingly most are dark in color: blues, greens and blacks. We all arrived in Bangkok with a backpack as at least one of our carry-ons for the series of flights from home to here. Previous volunteers had mentioned to us the importance of having a large backpack, something to be used on our bicycle to carry school supplies and yet big enough to be used later on as an overnight bag for when we travel about Thailand once we get settled and comfortable enough with the language and our lives to do so.
Each morning during these ten weeks of training we pack them before leaving our host families and hoist them over our shoulders onto our backs for our bicycle ride into town to our training site. They are loaded with things we’ll need for the day and when we arrive our shirts are wet with sweat even in the early morning air. These backpacks contain papers, booklets and homework, a folder full of language and culture lessons, safety and security information. There’s the Trainee Handbook, the Learning Thai booklet, a copy of our 10-week training schedule, scattered pages on useful Thai expressions, seven books geared toward our technical training, and other things to read if we would ever have a chance to be bored. We carry pens and pencils, highlighters and markers and one or two pads to take notes in.
After our first week of training many of us winnowed down the contents of these packs, leaving some of the books and manuals at home with our host families. There was the large binder with weekly evaluations. It was simply too big. The bulky English to Thai dictionary that isn’t needed when we’re surrounded by our Peace Corps training staff, so it stays home during the day to be used when we return home to converse with our host families. The Medical staff gave us three paperback books on how to stay healthy in Thailand, valuable illustrated reference books that we hope we never have to use. There’s the Cross Cultural Manual and the Safety and Security Manual that get stuffed back into the bag only when they’re needed once every week or two. The Bicycle Maintenance Manual probably should be in the backpack at all times, it’s a thin little thing, but I took it out once to clean the bag and never put it back in.
We ride to school in shorts and t-shirts with our heavy packs on our backs, sweating. Once we get to training we are expected to dress riap roi, business casual by US standards. So khakis and polo shirts, long skirts and blouses are packed into the bag each morning as well. Some folks carry an extra pair of shoes; most carry deodorant, sun screen and lip balm. We change out of our damp clothes once we arrive, turning the tiled bathrooms of the schools and municipal offices into locker rooms and we change back into those same damp clothes at the end of the day, after eight hours of training, for our tired rides back home.
In addition to the books and the change of clothes we carry things we’ll likely need if we have issues with our bikes. We pack a bicycle pump, patch kit, tool set and spare inner tube. We carry our water bottles and perhaps a snack for break time: oranges, sticky rice or bananas. Thais love their snacks. Then there are the scattered objects that vary as much as the volunteers themselves: the Ace bandages and packets of ibuprofen, the anti-diarrheal pills, the powder to lessen the prickly heat, the flash cards, the extra bottle of free bug spray—as precious as gold here—that we grab off the desk by the door when staff brings a fresh shipment from Bangkok. But for most volunteers, within easy reach in our bags are our electronic devices. When we are able to find a strong enough wi-fi signal, that alone lightens the burden of our heavy packs as we are transported back to family and friends for a few precious moments.