It’s been a rough ride, a marathon really. We started out as group of 71 trainees arriving in Bangkok in early January, bleary-eyed after two days of flying, but yet happy and filled with anticipation. We’ve been together enduring 10 demanding weeks of language, technical training, cultural immersion, and formal and informal group bonding. Now in early March we find ourselves down to 66 trainees, some leaving for personal reasons, some professional and one under questionable circumstances. Due to confidentiality, it’s all speculation. I’ve been thinking a lot about a rather bleak movie from 1969, one of the first movies directed by the brilliant Sydney Pollack, “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” Disparate and desperate couples enduring a grueling dance marathon for a prize. It’s time I watch the movie again, I haven’t seen it in years. But I need to wait until after I’m officially sworn in as a Peace Corps volunteer in a week or so; the movie does not have a happy ending.
Something has changed over the course of these 10 weeks and I can’t quite put my finger on it. The cool season has come to a close and the weather has turned hotter. Days boil and the nights are on a slow simmer. The heat has stolen my appetite and I’ve lost weight.
We soon-to-be volunteers are tired and anxious, tired from our training and anxious to know where we’ll be located for our two-year service commitment. But the Peace Corps is being tight-lipped, holding the announcement out in front of us, a big, fat carrot on a long stick. They’re making us wait and we don’t know why. But then again the knowing wouldn’t really help this suppressed mood brooding within me.
Thoughts about leaving have been entering my head on a daily basis. There’s the inevitable self-doubt, “What the hell am I doing here?” “I’ll never understand this language.” “It’s hot, always hot.” Or else it’s, “They want me to work with kids? I hate kids.” Fortunately these thoughts come and go quickly; I’m still very much committed to this venture. I know I’m not alone in struggling with the language. Overall my pace has slowed and I drink bottles and bottles of water. And I find the kids beyond adorable. Mainly though I’m thinking about leaving this family that has opened their home and their hearts to me. After two short months together we have to say good-bye. I move to another village somewhere in Thailand and they get their house back to normal.
The other evening my host family and I were sitting outside under the shade of part patio, part carport, enjoying the breeze coming off the adjacent rice fields. As we listened to the sugar cane trucks roll by on the road adjacent the house, watching the many scooters traveling up and down, I thought about my own mother and father when I was a child back home. During the summer months we’d sit outside on the patio that was attached to the garage and we’d watch the traffic go by our house late into the evening. Half a century and half a world away now I’m doing the same thing with a different family.
Here in Thailand our conversations often turn to fruit. I asked my host dad if I could buy a small lime tree from him when I left. He has a small orchard of limes out back and has been making cuttings of some of the branches and repotting them, I assume for sale. Or perhaps he plans on starting another orchard on another part of his property. My language skills aren’t quite there yet to ask. There’s a collection of potted lime trees, two to three feet tall, sitting next to the concrete wall and wood-slat fence separating the house from his rice fields. I thought it would be nice to plant a fruit tree at my new home, something that will provide me with fruit, vitamin C and fond memories of my time with this new family of mine.
My host mom and dad are a few years younger than me. It’s odd to call them mom and dad but we Peace Corps volunteers—of all ages—adopt this phraseology nonetheless. We categorize them as such because these are the people who share their homes and lives with us and ofttimes treat us like children. They watch over us and make sure we are safe and cared for. They follow behind us when we want to ride our bikes alone, they encourage us to eat more, shower often, do our homework and get some much needed rest. They feed us and nourish us; they enrich our understanding of this strange new world we find ourselves in. We are their children and they are our caregivers, our parents.
Now I know that feeling that’s been troubling me. I felt the same thing when I saw my own dad and Joyce three months ago and had to say goodbye to them.