The translucent vinyl panels were rolled down so the rain wouldn’t come in. They obscured the view out of the back of the song-taew. Carlos was missing the scenery on this trip up the mountain. It had rained heavily during his six and a half hour bus trip from Krabi to Ranong the day before and he didn’t see much beyond the wet rubber and banana trees. It was still raining during his brief visit to my village, my home. He was only going to be here for a few hours and we sat on my patio drinking coffee for most of that time until the downpours eased to a soft, steady rain. At that point we popped open the umbrellas and walked around for a tour; it was only going to take a few minutes. Carlos was my first visitor and I made sure to show him all the highlights: the wat, the Buddha on the hill, the school, the office building where I sit most days, the strip mines on the back mountains. I showed him all the mundane places too: where I buy my bananas, where I get my hair cut, where I mail my postcards, where I eat lunch most days.
When Carlos and I and 68 others were in training those first few months here in Thailand, some of the volunteers already serving joined us for a few days at a time to share their experiences and to let us know that they were once where we were and had survived. In that surreal world of training where everything was new and overwhelming, where all our actions and mannerisms were scrutinized, we continually had thoughts of apprehension, waves of angst about our abilities, our decisions. We had qualms about our not knowing where we would be living out our two years and we wondered how we could possibly carry on. Would we be close to Cambodia, or Laos, or Myanmar? Would we be in the middle of the country living amid rice paddies or fields of sugar cane or rather somewhere else surrounded by rubber trees or palm oil trees? What kind of work would we be doing, what would the schools be like? Would we have a squat toilet and bucket shower? Would there be a 7-Eleven nearby? Would we have reliable internet? Would we find someone we could trust and confide in and possibly speak English to, someone who could understand us? What would our days look like? Our nights?
These seasoned volunteers—the Peace Corps called them Resource Volunteers—shared openly and assured us that we’d be okay. They had experienced our doubts and had survived all the terrible things we were beginning to image would befall us. We had so many questions we didn’t even know we wanted to ask. These volunteers had been in Thailand for a full year or two already and had credibility. They listened to our scattered questions and responded and when we didn’t know what to ask they told us their stories.
One pair of volunteers seemed to stay longer than the others, or maybe I was simply more interested in what they were saying or in the way they were saying it. The woman was young and thin; she was covered in tattoos and piercings. She had short hair, the color of which could only have come from a bottle and she told about her difficulties in being an openly gay volunteer in a rural village in the far east of the country. We listened and we asked these experienced volunteers about their sites and how they were coping and all that. They smiled and assured us that the Peace Corps does a good job with assigning locations. We doubted that. The young woman said that in her year in Thailand she had visited several other volunteers at their homes and I remember her saying that the sites, so distinct and different from each other, suited the particular volunteer perfectly, each of them being so distinct and different. The places she visited might not be places she, herself, would like to live, but they was apposite to those friends, she thought. The locations suited them well.
During those first few months of training Peace Corps staff would ask us questions about what kind of site we saw ourselves at. The interviews were brief and vague, passing conversations at the time; most of the time we didn’t realize we were being interviewed. We didn’t know much about Thailand and any preferences we may have stated dealt with living in the north or the south, living in the mountains or near a beach, living in a good-sized town or an isolated village, or preferring to be close to Bangkok. At the time we were all living in Central Thailand, flat and inundated with rice fields. I’m sure I mentioned I wanted topography, hills, mountains, something to relieve the monotony of the plains. But always we were to remain flexible. Rumors abounded that such and such country told their volunteers one month into their training where they would be placed. Another country allowed its trainees to visit their villages beforehand. But Peace Corps Thailand waited and when the day finally came—during our last week of training—staff made quite a big production of the announcement of where we actually would be living for the next two years.
While Carlos and I sat on my patio and later walked the narrow, rain-soaked streets through town, we compared notes on how similar and how different our sites were. (He has two 7-Elevens and a Tesco mini-mart, I have none; the closest one at the bottom of the mountain, 7 km away, just closed.) Now a half a year in my nestled village I walk out of my office and proudly gaze out at the mountains I live amongst. My eyes trail above the corrugated fiberglass roofs, above the colorful tarps that screen the houses from the tropical sun. I look past the Buddha that sits on the side of the hill, past the red-roofed temple buildings and I think how lucky I am. Carlos referred to my village as ‘sleepy’. It is. He also called it picturesque, although how he could tell from underneath his umbrella, I can’t say. No matter, I couldn’t agree more. I am grateful for my placement and the beauty of my village in spite of its isolation and lack of excitement. It is small but big enough for me. It suits me well. I am happy to have shared it, albeit so briefly, with another volunteer.