What I Heard At My Mid-Service Conference

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Great advertising.  8 months of rain, 4 of sun.

Four months of no rain has given way to the eight-month rainy season my province is so proud of. I have to remember what that’s like: the umbrella by the door, the pocketful of plastic bags to slip my phone into, the wet sandals each morning, the oily bug spray each evening, the slugs that find their way into my dishes overnight in the dish rack. Last year, my first year in Thailand, this was all new and while 28 days of rain a month for three straight months may not be considered ‘exciting’ (after that it drops down to 23 days a month on average), it was novel and gave me something to write home about, a bragging right when comparing hardships with other Peace Corps volunteers. Oh yeah, well my mosquitos are bigger than yours.

Now that rainy season is in full swing I can more readily justify all the time I spend on Facebook scanning the success stories of other volunteers so totally engaged with, and integrated into, their communities. They’ve all made friends so easily and are connected to the students and teachers through the popular Line app. They haven’t known these new friends for only a short year, they’ve known them a lifetime. These are soul mates, long lost brothers and sisters separated at birth. I just know that when these volunteers finish their Peace Corps service they’ll go back home, finish grad school, and singularly fill the void left by Mother Teresa. They’ll invite their Thai BFFs to their weddings, or to their Raoul Wallenberg Award ceremonies. Their wedding will of course be a Buddhist affair because they became Buddhist while in the Peace Corps, it being such a natural fit. And I immediately think, I don’t have any friends here. I have no one I’ve connected with. Not one single person. My landlady stopped bringing me food. My counterpart doesn’t talk to me. All the kids throughout the village are afraid of me and cross to the opposite side of the street whenever I approach them. No one has even friended me on Facebook and when I ask about Line, they just stare and say, No, No.

Then someone will post a message, “You’re right where you’re supposed to be.” What does that even mean? I’m sitting on my patio watching the clothes dry for God’s sake, wallowing in Facebook feeds and that’s going to make me feel better? When Bruce and Myrna were here, they were trying to make me feel good about what I was doing, trying to make me see the small victories. They mentioned that when they walked the streets of the village, more kids and adults are saying Hello to them than in the previous years they wintered here. Of course they all know how to say hello, that’s how everyone in Thailand answers the phone. It’s universal. Hello. They can’t say anything else in English. So I can’t take any credit for that.

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Peace Corp Thailand Group 127 All-Stars

Peace Corps Thailand Group 127, what’s left of it, met recently for its Mid-Service conference. Two-thirds of us have survived to this halfway point of our two-year service. I sat and listened and compared.  I heard about the wonderful villages everyone lives in, those strange rural places with a 7-Eleven on every corner and convenient transportation choices and I just shook my head, crying on the inside. I heard of folks having their meals delivered nightly to their air conditioned houses. I listened to these same volunteers talk about how successful their projects have been, or I could have been dozing. I heard about English clubs that have been so enriching that the yaai (the grandmothers) now label all the fruit and vegetables they sell at the market exclusively in English and I swear I thought someone said that their rural village is now accepting US dollars, like they do in Cambodia.

Another volunteer said that since she began teaching, the HIV and teen pregnancy rates in her schools are actually below zero. Another mentioned that his simple hand washing project became so successful that the kids are now sanitizing all the stray dogs and that mange has been eliminated throughout the province. And another told the funny story of how everyone in her village loves her yoga classes so much that when they meet on the street, after the traditional Thai greeting (wai) folks will automatically go into Warrior I, II, and III poses. She’s created a whole new social norm.

One of my biggest obstacles has been the language. I simply mumble, point, nod, and say chai, chai (yes, yes) as if I understood what anyone was saying. My fellow volunteers all speak Thai fluently and can carry on meaningful and deep conversations with teachers, students, vendors in the market and all the government officials they spend time with, who, by the way, they regularly drink under the table, which is no easy feat. I’m sure I overheard one of the Emilys say she is currently translating (and illustrating) the latest Harry Potter book for her students, not just into Thai but into the dialect of whatever border province she’s in.

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The canteen slop bucket and the hungry dogs waiting, always waiting, for a handout

I eat lunch at the school canteen most days and the teacher’s table is next to the slop bucket, the barrel all the students and teachers throw their food waste into. When the barrel is filled the contents gets transferred—somehow, I’ve never asked how—to a local pig farmer. The teachers usually reserve the seat closest to that bucket for me. Did I mention that the bucket sits under a roof downspout? Well, now that it’s rainy season…
I’m right where I’m supposed to be.

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You. You!

“You.”
“You!”
The second was always more emphatic, a bit harder to ignore.

We were in Vietnam ambling through the markets looking at souvenirs: T-shirts, bracelets, bags, and non-la (the iconic conical hats of Vietnam).

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Non-la, the traditional Vietnamese field hats

The vendors, mostly women, would single me out and shout in English, “You. Look here. What you want?” They’d follow and implore me to go back to their stalls, to buy their wares. If I showed an interest in one shirt, four more were offered to look at, to try on, to buy. “This. You like this.” Not as a question, but a firm statement. And once they’ve got you, they won’t let you go. “No. No, thank you. No. Really, no. NO.”
“You like? You buy this too.”

We’d been in Vietnam for a few days on a bus tour and our last afternoon we found ourselves back in Central Vietnam, in Hue the old imperial capital (1802-1945). Everywhere we stopped along the tour we were provided with an opportunity to shop, hours of opportunities really. Every attraction had a small market or a souvenir shop attached and this last afternoon we couldn’t leave without visiting the city’s biggest market. This wasn’t even the last market we’d see, we still had the duty-free shops at the Vietnamese and Laos borders on our way back to Thailand. The bus we were traveling on was already filled with bags and packages, my legroom rapidly diminishing.

The market in Hue was claustrophobic and cramped and hot. The aisles between stalls were often times an obstacle course and only wide enough for one person to walk sideways through. There was a section for housewares. “You. You like coffee? You buy pot.” There was a section for food, for quick meals or fresh produce. “You. You buy water.” There was a section for perfume and jewelry. “You. You buy for wife. Where your wife?” But the largest section was for clothing: used clothing, new clothing, knock-off label clothing, T-shirts, silk shirts, dresses, socks and underwear. It was all here.

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One of the many cramped stalls.  This vendor is already sitting five feet off the ground.

“You. You!.” I tried to ignore it. I was winding my way through the market, turning left here, right there, down narrow alleyways past hardware and stationery, trying to avoid the constant shouts to stop at this or that shop. I was looking for a particular T-shirt but didn’t want to convey any emotion or facial tic to appear as if I was interested in anything. The voice persisted, “You. Come to my shop. What you want?”
“I’m just looking.”
“Come to my shop. Follow me.”
“I’m just looking,” I told her again.
I continued on, she continued to follow me. She watched to see what I was looking at. I passed the perfume without slowing down or turning my head. My peripheral vision caught sight of the stone and sandalwood bracelets. I ignored the North Face bags to the right of me and bowed my head and looked straight past the Buddhas and amulets on the left. “Come to my shop.” She was still with me. She told me she was upstairs, I needed to follow her. I told her I’d look for her later.
“I have T-shirts” she said. I spun to look at her, to tell her “no” one more time. She patted my stomach and said, “Have Buddha size for you.”
“You’re not winning me over.” She didn’t understand my sarcasm but I ignored her and she finally went away. Five minutes later I found the stairs to the second floor and there she was, ready for me.

Her little stall had a prime location at the top of the stairs, on the corner of two aisles. Two high walls on the interior displayed all the shirts she had for sale, all neatly arranged on hangers, dozens and dozens of them lined up. The rest of the stall was nothing but piles and piles of boxes and bundled packages of her stock. She showed me shirts with collars, with no collars, with elephant designs, with tigers and dragons, with Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese flag and asked, “What shirt you like? What color?”
“How much?” I asked.
“You pick color, size, then we see price. More you buy, better price.”

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I had to have this shirt.

I admired her doggedness and pluck. Her husband was there and came over to do the bidding, his English was better than hers. Another shopgirl was on hand to climb over the piles, to dig out and pull apart the packages of plastic wrapped shirts to get to the right style, the right size, the right color. She had the T-shirt I had been looking for so I was hooked.

As I was paying she asked the inevitable, “Where your wife? You seem like nice guy, you need wife.” I’m sure she had another booth of those somewhere, but I all I wanted was one lousy Buddha-sized T-shirt. I was done shopping.

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Buddha-sized, but a happy Buddha

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To Vietnam and Back

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Our Thai tour bus

We stopped somewhere in Central Thailand bright and early in the morning to tour a temple. We couldn’t cross Thailand without stopping at at least one. I’d been on the bus for something like 16-17 hours and I hadn’t slept. I don’t sleep on buses. I was constipated and crampy. The ear plugs I had brought didn’t work all that well. Oh, they helped in deadening the drone of the air conditioning, and they muffled the two and a half hour karaoke session a bit, but the bass from the sound system came up through the seats and down from the ceiling. There was no escaping the pounding beat. The AC was cranked full bore and the vents overhead had been so worked over they couldn’t be turned off or down, adjusted or repositioned to lessen their gale force directionality. They blew cold air down my neck and chest all night. The tour bus provided some flimsy blankets and they did little but make me look silly wrapped around me babushka-like for the minimal of relief. We stopped every few hours for bathroom breaks and since I couldn’t sleep was able to at least warm myself up for a few minutes outside in the seasonal Thai heat of late April (85 degrees at 3 AM).

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At the Laos-Vietnam Border.

I was joining a dozen and a half teachers from my school and another dozen and a half of their family and friends for a 6-day excursion through Thailand and Laos, into Vietnam and back again. The bus was a big double decker job where you sit up high. Below was a tiny toilet, a big compartment for the luggage and a small enclosed room to accommodate the hardcore card players. The tour company provided two guides and two drivers and a couple of kids to help with loading the luggage and handing out snacks and water. I think the kids were also in charge of selecting the sappy Thai music videos and ridiculous Thai movies that played for hours, although I did like the one about the all-ladyboy volleyball team.

We started out from the big Tesco late in the afternoon, about 4 PM, and would be driving through the night and all the next day before finally arriving at a hotel twenty eight hours later before crpssing the border into Laos. I had grabbed a seat in the back where there’s extra legroom next to an emergency door and where I wouldn’t have to worry about anyone reclining their seat into my knees. The seats in the front of the bus filled in quickly and I didn’t realize the impact of the AC vents until we’d been on the road for a few hours and the sun had gone down. By then it was too late to move.

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The inside of the bus: music videos and amusing stories from Law-Laeng

Law-Laeng, one of our guides, was a comedian and she specifically catered to the women in the group, telling bawdy jokes (or so I was told). Her voice was mimicking and mocking, seductive and catty and she kept the women in stitches.

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Switching to our second bus, exit on the right

Before crossing the Mekong River into Laos we switched buses, to one not quite as big or as fancy, with the driver on the left and the exit doors on the right. Laos and Vietnam, as well as Cambodia, drive on the right side of the road; Thailand on the left. We left the two drivers and the boys at the border and we acquired one new driver and two additional guides, fluent in Thai and Vietnamese. They spoke for hours on the history of Laos and Vietnam and the attractions we’d be seeing. Unfortunately I didn’t understand a word that was said and blankly stared out the window at the passing countryside.

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Goats, Laos-y goats.

Laos was dry and dusty and poor. Goats and cows wandered and grazed unattended next to the road. We stopped for lunch at a place that caters to tour buses and before I knew it we were in Vietnam, descending the mountains toward the sea. Vietnam got greener and seemed more agrarian, small farms and rice paddies and home gardens dominated. We visited all the right tourist attractions in the central part of the country. We passed through Southeast Asia’s longest tunnel. We visited the underground tunnel community of Vihn Moc, inhabited by some 60 families between 1966 and 1972 during the Vietnam War. We stayed in Hue and ambled around the Royal Palace and the Phuoc Duyen Tower where I could enjoy the serenity and artistry of the incredible bonsai. We drove down the coast to Danang and admired the Dragon Bridge. We visited the giant Goddess of Mercy statue on the hill overlooking the South China Sea. Measuring in at 67 meters it stands 29 meters taller than Christ Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. We visited Ancient Town in Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We went back to Danang and traveled westward into the mountains to Ba Na Hills Resort, enjoying a breathtaking cable car ride up and down the mountain (Guiness World Book record holder). The mountain air was refreshingly cool and crisp, something I hadn’t felt in well over a year. The posh French resort on top of the mountain had a cathedral and pretty slick indoor amusement park. And of course we couldn’t go anywhere without stopping to shop.

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At the Royal Palace in Hue you could dress up like an emperor or empress and get your photo taken

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Danang’s Dragon Bridge

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The Goddess of Mercy statue outside of Danang

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Ba Na Hills Resort from the cable car.

Each day we were up at 5, ate breakfast at 6 and were packed and loaded onto the bus by 7. And by the end of each afternoon the free space on the bus got less and less. We stopped at little places catering to large tour groups, standalone enterprises selling Vietnamese tea, coffee and whiskey, Vietnamese pearls, Vietnamese marble, and Vietnamese clothing and personal items made out of bamboo fibers. Every attraction we stopped at had a small market for souvenirs and Ancient Town in Hoi An was one big tourist market.

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A worker at the marble yard sanding and polishing a small piece.

Our last day in Vietnam began like all the rest, up at 5, breakfast at 6, on the bus at 7. We climbed the mountains westward into Laos and then into Thailand. We spent time at each duty free shop while our passports and my visa alone was processed and stamped. (Thailand is part of the ASEAN community and visas between member countries are not needed.) We entered Thailand mid-afternoon and stopped at one final market for any last minute purchases. We ate dinner and switched back to our original bus, our original drivers, leaving behind our Vietnamese guides. We left at 6 PM and drove straight through the night and all the next day, arriving home at 4 PM. The air conditioning hadn’t been fixed and I had another sleepless night. I came home with a couple of T-shirts, bronchitis and a commitment to join the next tour to Korea. For that one, we’re flying.

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An Impression of Cambodia

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The Buddha heads of Angkor Thom

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Sam, our guide.  We always looked for the pink helmet

Sam, our tuk-tuk driver, was leading us out of town toward the temples of Angkor Wat when I began to notice the trees. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I was noticing them, there was something different about them, a very subtle difference. They were pretty much the same trees I see in Thailand, tropical trees with big thick trunks, mottled gray bark, and branches towering high above, but here they were invoking some vague otherness. It wasn’t all the trees that I was noticing but only those along a few of the streets.  I was also noticing more bicycles than in Thailand. The bikes were the old-fashioned kind, like the ones I used to ride when I was a child a half a century ago, before bicycling became a competitive sport and sprouted entire industries for spandex clothing, luggage, seats and other accessories. These are the kind of bikes where you sit up straight and aren’t in a hurry. Young women and tourists were pedaling leisurely, their front baskets displaying lunches to be eaten and food to be shared.

I was in Cambodia, Siem Reap to be precise, the tourist hub for the temples of Angkor Wat. It was the high season in Southeast Asia and besides being crowded in Siem Reap it was hot and dry and dusty. The seasonal rains would be coming soon and if anyone was thinking about it it was wistfully imagining that a little rain might cool things down a bit, at least wash some of the red dust off the cars and signs and leaves and building fronts. The brochures touting Angkor Wat all show lush green foliage, and right now the foliage wasn’t so lush. The trees needed water, inside and out.

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Ta Prohm

Angkor is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that encompasses a 400 square kilometer area around Siem Reap in Northwestern Cambodia. I knew it was big and important and much visited and it was someplace I had long wanted to see, mysterious and exotic. Finding myself next door in Thailand for two years, visiting Angkor Wat moved up to the top of my must-see list. It was a forty-five minute flight from Bangkok to Siem Reap (pronounced as quick, short syllables, Si-em Re-ap), easy in every way, including obtaining a tourist visa at the modern and spacious airport.

I didn’t know an awful lot about Angkor Wat, or Cambodia for that matter. There were vague recollections of US involvement here during the Vietnam War and I only glanced at the headlines and occasional photographs over the years: of King Sihanouk, Lon Nol, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. I turned an ignorant eye away from such a faraway and foreign place when I was young when the War was raging on. In my 30s I became interested in Eastern philosophies, searching for a different direction. I learned a little about Hinduism, Buddhism and the other main religions of Asia. And mention was made of the ancient Khmer Empire and of Angkor Wat and I filed it away.

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An overview/artist’s model of Angkor as it may have once looked, housing over a million people.  Other temple sites existed many kilometers from here.

I thought that Angkor was just one big Buddhist temple of importance to the Cambodian people. I didn’t realize that it was a sprawling civilization that had housed over a million people at its peak, that Angkor Wat was just one temple among dozens built over several hundreds of years, honoring first Hindu gods, then later Buddha. Khmer art, architecture and engineering feats spanned more than six centuries. Wars came and went as did the power and influence of the Khmer and other civilizations in the region. The Angkor-Khmer Empire reached its zenith in the 11th and 12th centuries, its realm extending into Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. It came to an end in the 15th century when the Ayutthaya Empire of Thailand obtained regional dominance. Angkor was abandoned by the many and left to the elements.

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The ruins at Beng Melea

Now visiting Angkor Wat I was beginning to get a clearer picture of the enormity of the Khmer Empire and its significance. (Do not confuse the Khmer Empire with the latter day Khmer Rouge.) Although most of the picture wouldn’t become all that clear until I left Cambodia and was able to sift through the brochures and Googled information at leisure. While visiting the ruins it was all rushed and confused: taking in this temple, that ruin, waiting patiently for people to move out of the frame of that perfect picture, being pushed past the plaques and signs that told which king and which religion we were honoring. Things weren’t presented chronologically or concisely. The names of the temples were confusing too: Banteay Kdei, Banteay Prei, Banteay Srey. The day tours were long and hot and tiring and the tuk-tuk drivers led us to all the hotspots according to a menu of prices, letting us figure out what was what on our own.

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Angkor Wat in the morning sun

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Our guide at the Cambodian War Museum reminding us of the Khmer Rouge genocide

Tuk-tuks were easy to come by and we hired Sam for 2 days to drive us around: to the ancient sites and to the more recent Cambodian War Museum with its displays of tanks, artillery, land mines and genocide. He drove along a couple of tree-lined boulevards in Siem Reap—one named for Charles de Gaulle—on our way to and fro and that’s when it hit me. Siem Reap had boulevards, wide, shaded streets with columns of big old trees at both curbs. That and the slow pedaling bicyclists precipitated a feeling of old Europe and its expansionism, another period of history. It was the colonial influence. Thailand didn’t have these old tree-lined boulevards as far as I had seen, it had never been colonized by a Western power. Cambodia had been. It had been a French Protectorate, part of French Indochina, for almost a century until gaining independence in 1953. French influence wasn’t great in Cambodia, particularly in this northwestern enclave; Vietnam was the prize back then. Admittedly I haven’t seen much of Thailand and my visit to Cambodia was only for a weekend, but the trees and their placement along the wide streets unwittingly put a short period of Cambodian history into perspective. While the French didn’t “discover” or even re-discover Angkor Wat, what they did do was show the world–the Western world–the beauty and magnificence of the temples and the ancient civilization. They planted the seeds of discovery. And they planted some trees.

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Finding Acceptance on the 515

The sun was brightening the sky around the high-rises of downtown Bangkok. It was a clear morning; you just knew it was going to be a hot day. Soi 11, usually crowded and full of energy, was not so busy and was getting cleaned.  The roadway was being swept, garbage was being piled aside, hotel and streetside plantings were being watered. The taxi drivers and prostitutes were sitting around idle and apathetic after a long night. Only a fraction of the carts that line the street were around cooking food at 6:30 and only construction workers were eating. Bangkok was waking up and I was saying goodbye.

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One of the many nighttime vendors along Soi 11, Sukhumvit Rd.

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Arriving for work early on a Sunday

There are three main bus terminals in Bangkok that serve the far corners of this country. There’s a hub for the buses headed to the North and Northeast Regions (Chiang Mai and Isaan) and another serving the Eastern part of the country (to the industrial and beach towns on the east coast of the Gulf of Thailand). The one I use, Sai Tai, is the hub for points south and west and is the only one not at all convenient to the Skytrain or subway systems of this expanding metropolis. My bus leaves promptly at 8:10 from the station in the far western reaches of the city. I walk a half mile from my hotel to the BTS station, take the Skytrain to Victory Monument, then transfer to a local bus out to the terminal. I’ve made this trip more than a half dozen times and have the system down fairly well. The first time I made the trip I was unsure how long it would take. I knew that when arriving from my village, it can take up to two hours during rush hour to get from Sai Tai to my hotel. I figured that making the trip in reverse on a Sunday morning should cut that time in half. To be safe I’ve found it best to check out of my room at 6:30 and allow myself an hour and a half for the 12 mile trip. But that first time, not knowing, I snagged a taxi. I asked for a cab with a meter, but most taxi drivers know that easy money can be had from foreigners so they charge a flat rate instead. Unsure of the taxi situation at 6:30 in the morning, I acquiesced and knew I was getting ripped off, being gouged 400 baht ($11.50) versus the 60 baht ($1.70) I’d spend on subsequent trips using public transportation. I’ve learned, but things can be unpredictable.

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The buses lined up at Sai Tai terminal

At the end of February I was in Bangkok on Peace Corps business. I was taking the bus back, bright and early on a Sunday. The day was as already described, clear with impending hot. Although that can describe pretty much any morning in the Big Mango. I walked to the Skytrain stop on busy Sukhumvit Road and before I knew it found myself exiting the train at Victory Monument headed for the local buses that thread in and out of this city. I jumped on one of the ones headed out to Sai Tai (the #515) and sat.  7 o’clock Sunday morning and something was going on, traffic wasn’t moving.  The bus was crowded, I was lucky to have a seat. We moved by inches along the route, past a couple of hospitals, a nursing school, past the Royal Residence, past the zoo, past a few institutes of higher learning and past more than a few wats, all the places I typically see in a blur if I’m lucky to find a seat. The trip from Victory Monument to the bus station usually takes a half hour, at most. It was nearing 8 o’clock.

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Waiting for the Skytrain

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Victory Monument.  Photo courtesy of http://www.bangkok.com

I was getting concerned, a little panicky actually, and started thinking of my options. There were few. I thought about hopping off the bus and hailing a taxi but the taxis were already full and moving as quickly as the bus was. Traffic was stalled in both directions. Side streets were choked as well. I thought about grabbing a motorcycle taxi that could weave around and between the idled cars and buses, up onto the sidewalk as I’ve seen them do, but that’s a Peace Corps no-no. We were all headed to the same pinch point anyway, the one bridge in that area that crosses the Chao Phraya River. I kept looking out the window at the traffic, then at my watch. I started thinking about arriving at the bus station too late, missing the bus and needing to wait another 13 hours until the overnight bus left. I hate the overnight buses. And what would I do to fill those hours waiting? All day waiting?

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One of Bangkok’s many local buses

I looked at the ticket I bought in advance for the trip back to my village, the one with the reserved seat that reclines, the snacks and the included lunch. I thought about the panic I was slipping into, the angst and the tightening chest, with each green light we weren’t gliding through. Oddly, there were no honking horns, no angry gestures, no pounding of steering wheels. I looked around at the faces of my fellow travelers on the 515, mostly students in uniforms (on a Sunday morning) and older adults all on their cell phones. I looked down at the faces sitting in the cars and the taxis stranded parallel to me, the people with the same fate as me, and I saw resoluteness and acceptance. This is the way it was to be.  I was getting there, slowly.

By the time we reached the last college, in view of the Chao Phraya River, the traffic finally started to break up and we began moving beyond a snail’s pace. The minute hand was a click to the right of the 12 on my watch. We covered less than four miles in just over 50 minutes. I showed my ticket home to the bus’s ticket taker (Thai buses have ticket attendants) pointing out to her that I was to depart in just a few minutes. She must have said something to the driver because once we were over the river, clear of the traffic jam, he floored it. He barely stopped to let passengers on and off along the route and we made it the last six miles to the terminal at 8:07. I hightailed it off the bus running through the station to the appropriate platform in the back of the terminal, #13, lucky 13. The bus was still there and crowded and I awkwardly lugged my two bags through the narrow aisle, breathless and bumping dozing riders.

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It didn’t make any difference. The bus didn’t leave for another half hour and nobody seemed to care.

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I’m Too Old For This Too

Saturday was filled with activities for the kids. What I thought was an anti-smoking camp turned into an anti-drug camp but I wasn’t understanding any of it anyway.  When the straight lectures began I tuned out and headed to the beach to walk in the surf. I was on the Gulf of Thailand after all and the reputations of the beaches of this beautiful country are well deserved. I returned back to the camp in time for lunch. The afternoon activities were more active and understandable to me and I watched and laughed and began to enjoy myself a little more. The 30 students I came with were engaged in games involving teamwork and problem solving, things I could easily pick up on and could participate in, if only with my eyes.

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Team drawing

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A classic problem solving test

When the round of games was completed the Air Force trainers pointed to the exercise field next door and more specifically to the six-story concrete tower. The kids were going zip lining. They got instructions on how they’d be strapped into the gear and how they should fall/jump from the tower. Even before seeing the first kid plunge and bounce, flailing across the zip line, dangling from his harness, I knew I had to do it. I don’t know why, I’ve always been afraid of heights. I just knew I had to. If I didn’t do it now, I never would. At 60, who needs regrets? Dtarn timidly asked how much I weighed and checked with the trainers to make sure the line would support my 86 kilo body. They assured her it would, but did I really trust their smiles? They made sure I was last.  I think they knew that after I leapt they would either need to replace or restring the line I had broken or they would need to readjust the tension and tautness of the cables.

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Prepping for the zip line

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OK, maybe that’s a little too tight. Or is it?

I donned the helmet and got strapped into the harness, the Air Force guys adjusting the straps, tightening them around my chest and groin so there was no give and little chance for injury when the line caught and I bungeed and bounced against gravity. I ran up the tower stairs and stood in line. My breathing was heavy, from the climb, from the heat, from the weight of the helmet and harness gear, from the anticipation. Being the military there were foot prints painted on the deck telling me where I needed to stand. There were three people in front of me, standing over their appropriate foot prints. I waited and watched and calmed down.

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The free fall. Not me.

I knew what to expect. The Air Force guys would attach the straps of my harness to the apparatus on the zip line. I would jump, become airborne and then plummet a story or two. I would then reach the end of the tether and bounce finally sailing 20-30 feet above the ground until I landed and got unlatched. My fear of heights all came down to those few seconds of leaving the safety and security of the tower, free falling and then rebounding. Once I got through that I’d be okay. I knew what I needed to do, raise my arms and hold the harness straps above my head, then let gravity do its job.

I really wasn’t afraid, maybe a bit apprehensive. I only allowed myself to think about the bounce and sailing across the field, not about the line breaking or anything going wrong. I didn’t think about losing consciousness or about being shoveled off the ground onto a stretcher. The only clear thought I had was, “What the hell am I doing? I’m too old for this.”

By the time it was my turn to jump most of the kids had left the training grounds, it was snack time, they hadn’t eaten in two hours. A few of my students stayed behind to witness my derring-do (or folly) and cheer me on. I stepped to the edge of the concrete, to the final set of painted foot prints, the ones with the toes missing, and I let the Air Force guys attach my harness to the zip line. I looked up, then I looked down, but only briefly. I looked out across the field toward my landing spot. Then I fell, or was I pushed? No, no, I jumped of my own accord. I fell awkwardly, chest first, and stopped thinking for a few seconds. The bounce happened, I stopped falling and I rebounded and bounced a little more. I heard the wheel on the cable above me as it spun round and round and I advanced along the line high above the ground. The line twisted a bit and I found I was looking back at the tower, so I jerked myself forward and continued on. I unconsciously let out a yell, a deep, throaty Woo Hoo and before I knew it it was over. I scraped my knee a bit when I landed gracelessly in the sand on the hill. But most importantly my shorts were still dry. I still think I was too old for this.

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This one’s me

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I’m Too Old For This

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Camping near Hot Springs, Arkansas 2014

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.

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pakamas

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.

 

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Pakamas are even worn by vendors at the market.  

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.

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Ao Ma-nao Beach at Wing 5, Prachuap Khiri Khan

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.

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Upper bunks

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Lower bunks

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.

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The shower room at the barracks of Wing 5

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.

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Ranong Canyon

 

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My friend Taylor feeding and wading amongst the fish on a recent visit to Ranong Canyon.

The water was green. Not a sickly, unhealthy green but a rich, nourishing, affirming green. There was a faint blue cast to it, from the sky, a reflection of the day. Not a cloud. I thought of the water as being the color of jade or emerald, a gemstone’s hue, lighter by degrees. Which was it: jade for self-healing beyond the physical or emerald a symbol of hope and thought to heal the heart?

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Ranong Canyon is a local attraction, a local gem, sitting three and a half kilometers above my village. A few of the guide books refer to Ranong Canyon as a natural beauty, but it was created after early tin mining took all it could from this lode. The abandoned mine is now a small lake a couple acres in size. It’s ringed by the jagged cliffs left by the open-cast mining operations and the lower reaches of those black and gray walls of stone have ferns and pitcher plants growing in the breaches. Less than half of the lake’s shoreline is accessible. Two small wooden docks extend out into the lake and house covered shelters. The lake is filled with fish although there is no fishing here. The fish are to be fed and respected. People come to feed the fish. I come to feed the fish and my spirit.

There’s only one road that climbs out of my village and I walk it occasionally to visit the Canyon and to sit. I walked up one recent Saturday. It was hot, nearing 100. I had done my shopping down in Ranong the day before so this day with nothing to do I decided to climb rather than coast back downhill to the bustle. The road is twisty and steep in parts and the traffic is sparse. A small community of a hundred families or so lives a kilometer or two beyond the Canyon. Most of the people who pass me have seen me take this trek before and know I will refuse their offers for a ride. I enjoy the walk. I pass stands of oil palms harvested now of their fruit. I pass rubber trees and notice the white sap overflowing the black cups that collect the latex. I pass steep embankments covered thickly with ferns. There are bananas up and down the shoulder of the road and betel palms and coconuts. Further into the jungle I would likely find small stands of coffee and cashews (not enough to market), cassia and jackfruit, Parkia and Acacia.

There are fewer than a dozen dwellings along the road between my village and the Canyon, shacks outfitted with spirit houses and satellite dishes, with chickens and protective dogs. I passed one young father sitting in the doorway to his home, a baby lying on his lap. He was feeding her some gruel from a small bowl. He pinched off some rice between his fingers and fed the hungry mouth. He flicked the remnants that stuck to his fingers out toward the chickens scratching the ground in front of him.

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Feeding the future

A few families that live near the lake set up stands on the side of the road to sell drinks and snacks. They sit there all day chatting amongst themselves, sharing meals and stories. The children play. Visitors are sporadic and when they do arrive the children rush to offer bags of bread, torn slices of white bread for sale to feed the fish. They also sell small bags of fish food, sealed bags of kibble. Two bags for 20 baht.

 

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The fish are waiting.  They know.

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The gazebo is waiting.  It knows.

When I reached the lake, sweating from the hike, I stopped in the shade to drink some needed water and was approached by one of the young girls selling food. She stuck out her hands and offered me two bags. I dug out a 20 baht bill, handed it to her and walked along the shore to the farthest dock. There was a small wooden bench under the shade of the gazebo and I settled in. I poked a hole in the bag, emptied a palmful of kibble into my hand and flung the food into the water. Hundreds of fish broke the surface to gobble it up and eagerly looked my way for more. Fish were on all sides of the dock waiting, sensing my presence, swimming in circles. There were catfish and carp. There were freshwater fish with rounded silver tails and ones with V-shaped red tails; there were goldfish and koi all hungry for anything tossed their way. I played with them, tossing one kernel of food at a time and watching them muscle their way in for it, the water roiling, the fish a blur. I threw the nuggets far to the right and far to the left and watched them swim. I tried to favor the smaller fish in the outer reaches of the swarming circles, the underdogs in this feast. I settled into the moment and my time then and there. A light breeze came up. It teased me and fed me and made its presence known just as I was doing with the fish. When the first bag of food was gone I waited and watched the fish circle the dock a few times while a few slowly abandoned their watch and swam off. There were other people around the lake who would oblige them in the meantime.

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Hijabs and a baseball cap

While I was sitting and watching and contemplating the fish, the feeding, the heat, the breeze, the green of the water, the green of the ferns and the surrounding jungle I heard a tittering of laughter. A small group of young Muslim women were making their way out onto the dock a hundred feet away from me. They were bundled in traditional long skirts and hijabs (head coverings) and they giggled and fed the fish. They snapped photos with their phones. They didn’t stay long. I opened my second bag of food and began sprinkling the kibble in the water again. I lost myself in the act of tossing food to the fish, this time thinking only of the fish and what I was doing. I watched as the koi fish, the gold, orange and white giants, stayed beneath the swarming smaller fish. One white monster reflected the bright sun, a blinding beacon shined upward through the jade water. Before I knew it the food was gone and I was left to watch the fish circle and abandon me.

Another group of people came to the dock next to mine carrying a 50-pound sack of fish pellets dumping bowl after bowl of food into the water all around them all at once. A feeding frenzy took place, the water foaming. By then my peace had swum off and it was time for me to leave. The sun was high overhead and I had the walk back home to think about, gently; and the heat, coolly; and the beauty of the jade-colored water, preciously.

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Let Me Get This Straight

Life is hard in Thailand. I’m not talking hard as in difficult or arduous, although at times it is. I’m talking hard as in rigid, firm, even unyielding. And more specifically I’m talking about the furniture. When my fellow Peace Corps volunteer, and friend, Carlos came to visit he plopped himself down on the faux-leather sectional couch in my living room and almost cracked his coccyx, his tail bone. He visited at the height of rainy season, so in the dim gray light seeping in through the windows on that rainy morning it looked vaguely comfortable. After all we come from a country where couches and chairs come as overstuffed as the sandwiches at Carnegie Deli. But it was anything but. Indoor furniture is sparse and spare. Chairs are hard, couches are hard, mattresses are hard. Homes are furnished with plastic or folding chairs; thickly varnished hardwood benches; paper-thin mattresses, if any at all. People sit on hard-tiled floors to pray, old women sleep on wooden platforms, laborers build bamboo and palm-thatched shacks and retire to straw mats. Most outdoor furniture including the tables and chairs at some local restaurants are concrete, unforgiving concrete. Thailand is not a soft country.

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Some typical patio furniture

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A typical front room

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Same room, different occasion

And Thais tend to like rigid order. They like things placed up against the walls and in straight lines. When I walk around town and glance into people’s front rooms, I never see a table or a couch or a chair sitting in the middle of the room, they’re always up against a wall. Everything sits straight and parallel and perpendicular. The empty space in the middle of the room is reserved for parking the family’s scooters and motorbikes at night (and the occasional coffin).

When Bruce and Myrna left Thailand, they left me all sorts of goodies. They didn’t want to just abandon their stuff at their rental house they knew they wouldn’t be coming back to. For some reason they took a shine to me and knew that I was just a poor Peace Corps volunteer who was making next to nothing. To be honest, I drilled that last point home. They were Westerners and had a penchant for softness and comfort and they had a soft spot for me. They gave me a second mattress and bedding so I can entertain company properly. Now all I need is company. I got a comfortable couch that folds down into yet another bed. I got pillows—four of them—and a couple of comfy plastic chairs. I got two end tables and an additional fan. Living without air conditioning, I’ll take all the fans I can get. I got lots of kitchen supplies and an actual oven, which, after 2 months I still haven’t used. Bruce left me two of his paintings (both he and Myrna are artists) and I got a great selection of hanging plants for my patio. And I couldn’t be more grateful.

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Western art, thank you Bruce V. 

On my patio I have a hammock, two of the hand-me-down chairs and a metal frame table with a patchwork top made from odd pieces of sheetrock. The table sits solidly beneath the two front windows and I keep one of the chairs next to it, at a 45 degree angle, to more easily reach my mug of coffee (mornings) and my ever-present bottle of water (afternoons). I’m not a right angle kind of guy; I skew things. My landlady doesn’t much care for that.

My landlady doesn’t come over as much as she used to. In the beginning she’d come over to sweep the patio after I left in the morning. She quickly saw that I occasionally kept the patio clean on my own, so she didn’t need to come over as often. She still comes to wash out the spirit houses every week or so and less frequently to pull weeds that grow in and around the yard. And every time she does she moves my chairs. After every sporadic visit I find the chairs with their backs solidly up against the wall, parallel and perpendicular an edge.

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My outdoor room with a skew.  (The one chair in the middle was temporarily moved from beneath the plants I had just watered.)  Photo courtesy Taylor Valencia.

But it’s not only the chairs. Over the past year I bought a few potted plants to decorate the patio with and to bring nature into my little outdoor sanctuary. My landlady saw what I did, was obviously pleased and brought over some additional plants from her yard across the street. But then I noticed things moving. If I put 3 plants on the left, she’d move them to the right. If I placed a cluster near the pillar, she’d move them to ring the concrete pool. If I clumped a couple plants near the pool, she’d string them out in a line next to the pillar. Bruce and Myrna’s donations included a nice selection of hanging plants, including some orchids. Orchids grow well in this rain forest-y part of Thailand. I’ve strung the orchids up from the front beam of the covered patio to bring the greenery closer to me and as a visual reminder that I need to duck or I’ll bonk my head. She’s gotten to moving them off of that beam and into the tree that’s 15 feet from the patio. One day she’ll move one, the next day another, as if I won’t notice. I always notice.

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A piece of my patio, a piece of my pool (cee-ment pond)

She’s a right angle kind of woman and I’m disturbing her sense of order. We are in a silent battle of wills as well as a battle of aesthetics and cultural differences. This patio is my retreat, my refuge and safe harbor and on these points I will be hard and unyielding.

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Just Say No

He smiled at me and said, “50 baht.”
I smiled back, shook my head and declined.
“35 baht,“ he countered.
“No,” I said.
“30.”
I hesitated. 30 baht was a decent price. I was thinking about it.

I had just left the big Tesco supermarket with a week’s supply of food and needed to get back to my village. It was hot. I was sitting under the bus shelter along the highway a few hundred feet downstream from the only big box store in my province and was waiting for one of the song-taews that services the communities to the south. I could easily walk back downtown, I’d done it a half dozen times before, but all the Snickers would melt terribly. He pulled up beside me, coming from in back of me on the sidewalk, and angled his motorbike so that we were facing each other.

We were familiar with each other, or at least I was familiar with him, he’d asked me if I wanted rides before, usually as I was walking back to Ranong from the store, already in my groove. I’d say he’s in his early 60s, round-faced with wisps of gray hair sticking out from underneath his helmet (he’s one of the few motorcycle taxi drivers that wears a helmet). His beard and mustache are scraggly and mostly gray. I always found him riding on the sidewalk.   Motorbikes frequently ride on the sidewalk here.  Thais don’t walk much so there’s little chance of conflict, plus enforcement is less than lax.    He is one of the half dozen or so motorcycle taxi drivers that run the Ranong Market-Tesco route, and he works for the company whose employees wear the pink vests with the shark logo on the back. This is the first time I wasn’t moving quickly in the opposite direction, so I was forced to decline him at length.

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Motorcycle taxis ready for service

In the Peace Corps volunteers are forbidden from riding motorbikes of any kind. Instead, Peace Corps Thailand provided us with nice—really nice—bikes (and helmets). When I first got to my site, my mountaintop community, I was gung-ho and rode my bicycle down to Ranong the first few weekends. The ride down the mountain was a breeze, literally and figuratively, and required very little pedaling. Riding back up was the hard part, my 60-year old lungs didn’t have the capacity they once did and in the 99 degree heat I found I was walking the bike, panting and sweating, more than I should have been. Plus, I couldn’t carry an awful lot in the little basket attached to the back; I was limited in so many ways. After a while I learned the song-taew system from my village down to the city, more or less. Once I got dropped off across from the market I could walk around and explore. Each successive week I expanded my circle out from the center of town. I became content getting to know the downtown stores and stalls better.

I relied on my co-workers for weekly trips out to the Tesco Lotus. The big Tesco sold things I couldn’t find in the stores downtown, things I had quickly grown to covet and need, like their bakery-fresh vanilla butter cake I devour for breakfast every day and that certain brand of whatever from Germany or Australia or the US that I suddenly couldn’t live without. It seemed like quite a trek to the big box store when my co-workers drove but we were making lots of stops along the way, doing official community business: paying bills, banking, picking up and dropping off printing needs, lugging supplies. After a while the frequency of our trips dwindled, or rather I was being invited less often, and I needed to figure out how to get out there on my own. I tried it once on my bike but that turned out to be a poor decision, the yogurt, the butter and I reached home as overheated liquified blobs.  Soon it would be rainy season and I didn’t even want to think about that.

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You can fit so much more stuff on a song-taew

Eventually I learned that the walk out to Tesco from downtown wasn’t as onerous as I had first imagined, a half hour in each direction. Next I discovered what song-taews I could transfer to that dropped me off and picked me up close to the store.

I knew, or thought I knew, that a few volunteers snubbed their noses at the Peace Corps’ prohibition on riding motorbikes.  So went the rumors. So when the motorcycle taxi driver offered to take me downtown for 30 baht, I paused.
30 baht.  “I can’t,” I said, pointing to the big bag of goodies I was toting. In turn he pointed to the narrow space in front of his legs. Then I quickly remembered the things I’d seen folks carry on their scooters: families of five, ten foot ladders, even an airplane.
30 baht.  “I can’t,” I said, pointing to my head. He pointed to the extra helmet sitting in the wire basket in the front of the bike sitting above the headlight that looked broken.
30 baht. “I can’t,” I said, but couldn’t remember the words for “because those are the rules and I can get kicked out.” I hesitated. I tried to glance past him to see if there was a song-taew on the horizon. There wasn’t.
30 baht, that’s under a buck and I’d be back home so much quicker transferring those melting Snickers into the fridge.
30 baht, that’s only double the price of the song-taew. Who would know?

I said no again and shook my head. He hesitated, he was losing interest but he tried one final time. 30 baht.  I hate risk.  I more firmly told my taxi driver, “Thank you. No.”

It took over an hour before I was finally able to pour the Snickers into the refrigerator. Each night I pick out a differently-shaped bar. They all taste the same.

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