It was an exhausting day, an emotional day filled with pride and apprehension. This was the long-awaited day when I could finally and officially be called a Peace Corps Volunteer. I was a child when the Peace Corps was born in 1961 and the thought of Peace Corps service has long been in my subconscious. So this was the day I had been waiting a very long time for, fulfilling a childhood dream of serving my country in peace. Along with 63 other volunteers, I had endured 10 arduous weeks of training and adjustment to life in rural Thailand. It was the day I would be leaving behind the safety and security of my pre-service training, leaving behind my now-extended family of fellow volunteers, teachers (aajaan) and dedicated Peace Corps staff, and venturing to a corner of Thailand unfettered and alone.
We volunteers, along with our teachers and Peace Corps staff, were dressed with dignity for our official induction into this unique family, following in the footsteps of 215,000 others before us, enduring speeches and accolades, waiting patiently for the moment we could stand with our right hands raised to utter the same oath of service to our country as our Presidents. When it was done we hugged each other, smiled through misty eyes and vowed to stay in touch. We were now members of a special club and were eager to get on our way, apprehensive about what was waiting for us in the coming 24 hours and 24 months.
Our Thai counterparts, our new supervisors and overseers, friends, translators and guides for the next two years waited patiently as we gathered our luggage and said our goodbyes. We loaded up trucks and cars or headed to bus stations to begin our journeys. And off we went one truck and car at a time, leaving behind our basic training, our shared highs and lows, and a special bond that cements all Peace Corps volunteers together.
I hopped into the back seat of a waiting pick up truck, the air conditioning on full blast (it was 99 degrees in Central Thailand) and headed west, then south with Dtarn, Bank and Mister Green, my newly acquired friends. We had met two days before this and our bond was still tentative and new. Thais come with given names and nicknames: Dtarn’s given name is Panisa, Bank is Kirati, and Mister Green is, well, I’m not really sure. He was our driver and was introduced to me simply as Mister Green, his nickname being Kiao, or Green in Thai. He came across as a happy little man with an easy manner and a ready smile. When he walked, he walked quickly, arms swinging back and forth, shoulders swaying with each step. I helped him load my luggage into the bed of the truck and we were on the road by noon.
Several hours into the trip, after lunch and a few pit stops, mountains began appearing to the west, silhouetted by the haze of the tropic heat and the setting sun. By the time the sun was finally down we were securely on the main road through the northern portion of the Malaysian Peninsula. We briefly turned west, then south again and wound through the mountains. Not being able to see any detail in the darkness I drifted in and out of consciousness. We reached our destination, my new home for the next two years just before midnight, twelve hours on the road.
I would be staying with Bank for at least the first few days and we emptied my luggage from the back of the pick up truck and walked down a narrow dirt pathway, past a row of 3 or 4 one-story concrete homes. I ducked my head beneath corrugated metal awnings until we reached Bank’s modest home. His mother greeted us briefly. I was shepherded to a small bedroom with a small bed. I dropped my bags, closed the door behind me, switched on the fan, quickly undressed and fell into bed and a sound sleep without even lowering the mosquito net around me.
Roosters greeted me the next morning as they had for the past 10 weeks in Central Thailand. Once outside I realized it was cooler than I had anticipated. It was in the mid-70s, comfortable and refreshing, the mountain air wrapped in a light fog. Surprising for a place less than 700 miles from the equator.
A new day greeted me. I walked the narrow streets and greeted my new neighbors, smiling as I went. And so it begins.