I was never one for making New Year’s resolutions, for taking stock at the end of the year and looking forward, setting typically unrealistic goals for the year ahead. Although the last time I did it was in 1982 when I successfully quit smoking. But this year I figured the timing was ripe for me to take a long and hard look at my feelings about this Peace Corps service of mine, to ponder and contemplate whether I want to continue, to play out my two-year commitment. I asked myself the question, “What needs to happen to get me to stay on one more year?” I had been struggling these past few months with isolation, with disengagement, with purposelessness and lack of direction, with general frustration, and the thought of packing it in has weighed heavily on my mind. There have been some personal things going on too, that would simply be easier to take care of if I were back in the States. I have been battling with thoughts of leaving early. We call it Early Termination, ET for short.
I spent the last three months of 2015 worried about money. A new credit card shipped from home in October never arrived and I hadn’t been able to access my personal savings. I was forced to live solely on my volunteer’s stipend. Christmas came and went and the New Year rung in around me while I tried to sleep. There were fireworks up at the reservoir and that set the village dogs off for a marathon bark-fest. A few days into the new year an old root canal flared up and I spent two consecutive, sleepless nights on overnight buses between home and Bangkok for an emergency appointment with a specialist. I was in pain, my cheek and jaw swollen to the size of ripe mango and I hadn’t eaten in three days. Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. (HALT)
I visualize my friends back home shaking their heads at my situation, my struggles, my endurance. They comment on the certainty that they could never tolerate the heat, the bugs and reptiles, the rain, the adjustments and deprivations that have become part of my routine. They don’t so much reflect on how I survive and endure, but rather they wonder why the hell I’m doing what I’m doing. I should be back home relaxing, enjoying my retirement, living within my middle class American means, with my middle class American amenities. I shouldn’t have to be on the other side of the planet living in a little mountaintop village in their idea of squalor. But I don’t see it as squalor and honestly, the physical vexations aren’t that intolerable. A fellow volunteer, Jake, recently wrote an interesting article for our Peace Corps Thailand newsmagazine on Early Termination, where he discussed the needs and wants we volunteers may or may not have access to and our drive to attain them. (He also delved into the seemingly high Early Termination (ET) rates in Thailand.) I thought for sure when I first arrived in country that I would need air conditioning, that I wouldn’t be able to live without it. The heat zaps me. Some days I’m sure I lose several liters of water through sweating and some nights I sleep restlessly, but I survive. I’ve been able to exist without.
These things I cope with are things that may make some of my friends squirm and shudder. But they are simply inconveniences. If I didn’t have access to the internet, I’m sure I would adjust and adapt. With these more physical challenges, I’m reminded of those many times I got caught in the rain on my motorcycle (in the States of course, not here). I would simply take a deep breath, put on whatever gear I had available—if I remembered to pack any— and ride into it. I’d get wet; I’d get dirty; I’d become more attuned to the dangers of the road, the slippery pavement, the ruts and hydroplaning, the trucks and cars speeding by oblivious to me and my vulnerability. I’d slow down, tighten my grip on the handlebars and concentrate. I would quietly go forward. This is how I endure the physical challenges and deprivations here.
There are other concerns that aren’t as easily shrugged off, or at least I’ve found them more difficult to tackle head on: the isolation and loneliness, the lack of connection, the disengagement, the feelings of purposelessness and frustration. These are the things that Peace Corps volunteers are nominally warned about but that aren’t thought about as mindfully as they should be. They’re not tangible and sometimes they’re not even perceptible. Throw in a language barrier and a deep-seated introversion and these feelings become intensified and become quickly overwhelming. It is these things that have rattled my resolve and got me questioning my ability to last another year.
And so, “What needs to happen to get me to stay on one more year?” Stay tuned, I’m still working on it.