While waiting for placement in the Peace Corps a few years ago now I decided to drive across the US. I traveled 13000+ miles through 27 states and one Canadian province in something like 45 days. My mind was still that of a 30-year old adventurer (not that I did a lot of adventuring in my 30s, I was already leading a pretty sedate life by then). To save a little money I took a tent, an inflatable mattress and a sleeping bag and did some camping, not a lot mind you. My mind and my soul were telling me I was in my 30s, my bones and joints were telling me another story. I was well into my late-50s and the physical me moaned throughout the long nights tossing and turning on hard-packed gravel in campgrounds around the country. I woke up stiff and full of pain and regret for getting old. Camping was OK, in moderation, but I wasn’t going to make a habit of it. I was too old for this. Holiday Inn Express was more to my liking, they at least had coffee ready for me in the lobby in the morning.
On a recent Monday afternoon Bank and Dtarn approached my desk with wide-eyed sheepishness. Bank was carrying papers, looking official, and Dtarn had out her cell phone. They had come to tell me that I’d be going away with them for the weekend, Friday through Sunday, to a camp with 30 kids. I sort of understood it was to be an Anti-Smoking camp, but I wasn’t too sure. We’d be going to a province north of here. Dtarn flipped through some pictures on her cell phone of the place we’d be staying. She showed photos of tiled baths with greenish water. I was led to believe that this place had some public baths where we could languish and relax. She said, “Bath, room and pakama.” A pakama is a colorful cotton fabric that men wear around their waists, as either wraparounds or as decorative belts. They are traditionally worn on the way to the bathroom or just to relax in.
That’s the information I started with: “Camp. 3 days. In Prachuap Khiri Khan Province. Bring a pakama.” On Thursday I asked again about our excursion and Dtarn said we’d be leaving at 6 AM and then she shared with me that we’d be staying at a facility called Wing 5 of the Royal Thai Air Force. I looked at their website and saw that besides being an active Air Force Base, it was also a big resort with a large hotel, conference facilities, a public golf course, a beautiful public beach on the Gulf of Thailand (the opposite coast of this peninsula I’m living on). The facilities looked accommodating. This was going to be OK.
When we pulled into Wing 5 we were greeted by Air Force personnel and ushered into the barracks where we’d be spending our nights. 30 students, boys and girls aged 13 to 17, and 4 adults, men and women were to share quarters, sleeping in bunk beds. After rolling my eyes and sighing heavily I chose a lower bunk in a corner. The boys who had thrown their bags onto the bunks around me quickly moved their gear to other beds, out of respect or fear or simple reservation, but I wound up with the corner to myself. I tried the mattress and hit my head on the frame of the upper bunk. I would not be sitting up quickly in the middle of the night. The mattress was thin and as hard as the ground I had tried to sleep on in the the mountains of New Mexico. The pillow was just as flat and as hard. The room was hot, ceiling fans accommodated the upper bunks nicely; the lower bunks shared four large, more powerful floor fans. The fan nearest me was loud but on the plus side it drowned out the chattering in the large room which I couldn’t understand anyway. A fleece blanket was provided just in case the temperature dipped below 80. The mosquitos were hungry; they came early for dinner and stayed late.
The bathroom facilities were a separate building a few paces from the barracks, open and shared. A tiled trough with spigots and a long mirror faced the barracks and that’s where we brushed our teeth and where the Thai girls (and a few of the boys) applied their make up and whitening creams. Most of the girls (and the two boys who identify as female) used a separate bathroom a hundred feet away. The squat toilets were in the back of the building, along with a wall of urinal troughs. The toilets had doors but my body told me in no uncertain terms that I wouldn’t poop until I got back home Sunday night. The center portion of the bathroom was for bucket showers. Those long tiled baths that Dtarn had shown me on her phone were not tubs for leisurely soaks but troughs for scooping out water and rinsing away the sand and sweat accumulated throughout the day. Seen in context now, it made sense. Everyone showered in their underwear. Drying racks were provided to hang wet skivvies between showers.
I didn’t sleep well, my joints reminded me I was getting old, as if I needed a reminder. I’m not 20. I’m not 30. I’m 60 and my body knows it. Every time I woke up throughout the long hot night (and I woke up a lot) I thought about the comfy hotel down the road I should have been staying at and I said to myself, “I’m too old for this.”
Yet I look back on those crisp mornings waking up before dawn on the grounds of the Grand Canyon and Yosemite and Bryce and those are the mornings I remember. I don’t remember as clearly the mornings with the cushy mattresses, the snug comforters or the warm showers of the nameless hotels I wandered into throughout that trip across the country. I remember the quiet and the cold and the thirst of those mornings I camped outside just as clearly as I remember the sore hips and aching back. I’ll always have Wing 5 and the barracks. But still, I’m too old for this.