It’s early December, the days are shorter now and the rain has eased up. The eight-month rainy season seems to be winding down. The weather is a bit cooler, by Thai standards, meaning the daytime high might be barely 90. With the cooler overnight temperatures, the moisture stored in this tropical environment rises before the sun comes up and fog hovers in the valley. Mountains ring my village on all sides. The clouds that drift across this isthmus of Southern Thailand are low and play hide and seek with the mountain tops as they float by. They pass over, in back of, and in front of this low chain of mountains separating the Andaman Sea from the Gulf of Thailand. You can look up one moment and see a clearly defined silhouette of the imposing landforms, look down to watch where you’re stepping and look up again a few seconds later and not know there’s even a mountain there. The clouds and the fog obscure the scenery, taking away the background. Like David Copperfield making an elephant disappear from the stage. It’s a trick. It’s magic. It’s an illusion.
As I walk around the village I watch the play of the clouds and the fog. The mountains become caliginous, dissolving from green to gray to black and the trees at the crest come in and out of focus. As part of a mountain disappears behind a cloud, I try to recall if the part obscured rose sharply or gently and I try to imagine where the peak was, exactly. Was it just there, to the left, or maybe a little further over? Just then another shift occurs and the cloud, or is it fog at this point, wraps up and over, as another patch of moisture rises from the valley floor between the mountain I’m looking at and the mountain to the right. The peaks seem to move, forward and back, from clarity to vagueness and back again.
When the sun comes out from behind the mountains and the clouds, it gets hot quickly and the air becomes sultry and oppressive. The mountains become draped in gauziness and retreat from view a bit. Details are misty and indistinct. There is only mass, vague bands of shapes and colors. On those rare, clear days of this ebbing rainy season, the mountains move closer. When the light is right I can now begin to differentiate between the banana trees, the palms, the coffee, the bamboo, and the rubber. Form and detail are visible. And the crests of the mountains are rich in their intricate outlines, no longer a fuzzy line, but one with texture and complexity.
In this ever-changing, misty landscape I see my Peace Corps service. Some days the lines are clear, the commitment solid, right there in front of me, visible and in reach. Other days that commitment is obscured and indistinct, hazy and ill-defined. Fog and vagueness predominate: rising, falling, drifting around the solid and long-established bedrock of my engagement here. Yet there are days when the commitment is no longer even visible. And I struggle to picture it ever really being there. I struggle to understand my place, trying to sight a point of reference. There is only gray some days, heavy and oppressive. As I walk I wonder where I am and what I’m doing here. I go through my routine. I go to school and try to encourage the kids, try to teach some simple English but am met with blankness. The lessons from the day before and the day before that have evaporated and have drifted away without notice. I go to the municipal office and sit, hoping to become a part of the goings-on, part of my adopted landscape. But my position here is filled with ambiguity, there are no hard edges. I don’t know what or how to ask and they don’t know what or how to tell. To them I am a passing cloud.
I can not see the mountains from my house, they are blocked by other houses, trees and the simple lay of the land. At the end of the day I retreat to my home and to my computer or a good book. When the sun goes down I watch a good mystery or sitcom on Netflix and except for a few minor inconveniences I am not in Thailand at all. In the morning I begin again. Each morning, I begin again.
As I walk to school my perspective opens up. Some days the mountains are visible, textured and recognizable and I know where I am. And on the days they are not, I hope the fog will lift soon so that I can find my place again.