First it was the reading of the Peace Corps Pledge, aloud, in a cavernous hotel conference room with poor acoustics. I promise…I will face..I will embrace..I am a Peace Corps Volunteer. Our voices echoing; mine quivering, filled with pride and patriotism, two things I’m not used to feeling. It was signing the commitment paper and receiving the fancy lapel pin with the US and Thai flags and the Peace Corps logo. Then it was the official swearing-in ceremony with the US Embassy’s Charge d’Affaires administering our oath of service, all of us dressed up, tidy and respectful and aware of our obligation and engagement. I was finally, officially, proudly a Peace Corps volunteer, but I was feeling that still there was something missing.
We had made it through our pre-service training, battered and sweaty, and were sharing last minute hugs and tears with our comrades and friends, this motley and incongruous class of 70 volunteers. We vowed we’d keep in touch and visit each other in our far flung corners of Thailand. We had become a family bound together through our struggles and our dreams and our shared commitment. Our counterparts, our newly assigned friends and coworkers, waited patiently for us outside in the 100 degree heat to drive us to our new homes. I was officially a Peace Corps volunteer now, something I had dreamed about for a very long time, a lifetime really, since I was a kid growing up in the stifling shadow of the Vietnam War. But I was just an adolescent then not really interested or affected by that war. It was disturbing background noise in an otherwise quiet childhood. I liked the sound of peace though; my pride and patriotism forged by different terms. I turned away from the nightly news and escaped to Gilligan’s Island and kept company with the Swiss and Space Family Robinsons.
The Peace Corps, to me, has always represented hot, tired days, languid nights and a hammock. It was part of the picture, maybe even part of an early ad campaign. To make this Peace Corps thing even more realized I needed a hammock. I asked my co-workers where I might find one and they gave me vague directions to a store near the market down in the provincial capital. I had a vision of the hammock I was looking for. During those early months of training my original host family had one made from strips of cloth knotted together. It looked handmade, unprepossessing but with character. It was bulky and substantial and it looked like something I could lose myself in. I’d seen them for sale along the highways around that part of Central Thailand where we lived, sold out of little wooden booths and scattered parked pick up trucks. I had seen enough of them that they helped color the picture of my perfect hammock. I realized that I didn’t need palm trees or a lagoon, but rather only sturdy beams and a roof to shelter me from the rain.
Each time I went to the city down the mountain I’d stick my head into any shop that looked as if it might sell hammocks: shops that sold camping goods, shops that sold mattresses, shops that sold garden supplies, shops that sold fishing gear (I live close to the Andaman Sea). There was even an Army-Navy-type store where I spotted one with a camouflage pattern imprinted on the material. That definitely wouldn’t do, my picture of the perfect hammock was not colored in camouflage. I came upon a few, usually string-type hammocks, the ones made from lightweight twine, possessing little knots I couldn’t trust. They looked machine-made. They looked flimsy and slight and incapable of supporting my big-boned frame. I wasn’t finding what I was looking for.
But in Peace Corps Thailand I have a network of friends, a web. And all of our counterparts have a network now of friends and colleagues, connections woven throughout the country. I got my hammock via that web.
I’m adjusting to my Peace Corps life in Thailand and to a hammock strung between two supports. I straddle the hammock and like the old man I am becoming I uneasily ease myself down into it. I shift my weight and reposition my stern as I fold my legs and arms and cloak the fabric around me settling in, nesting. I then slowly unfold myself into the lattice of cloth strips and give myself over to the safety of those tested and taut bonds. I am a Peace Corps Volunteer.