Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Down Memory Lane . . . on modern life, Google, moving on and looking back

Dateline: Wednesday, May 6, 2015, 08:34 a.m. (local time)
Dateline City: Sunshine Coast, Australia.

Last night I took a trip down memory lane, walking in giant, unsteady steps from the primary school I used to work at in Sukhothai province all the way past my host family's house, up the street, around the wat (temple) and past the market, the canal, the vegetable seller, the rice fields, down the street where we lived for two years - nearly close enough to look in the windows of our old house, if they hadn't been shuttered. Past our house, past all the houses on our street that simply turns to red dirt as it goes out into the rice fields. Brilliant green rice fields. Red dirt roads. Piercing blue sky with a few clouds.

Staring out at it all, clear as every day when I actually lived there, I turned around - a full 360 degree whirl to look back at the road I'd just come from, and then ahead again at the path where, one foot in front of the other, I spent so many painful mornings and late afternoons sweating it all out, and then I teared up.

Blinking back tears, which had come unbidden, I put down my phone - the portal through which I had been taking the journey through my old site - and shook the images out of my head.

I've used my phone to look at images of Thailand before, of course, and to send those pictures to friends and family, to upload those photos to online albums for sharing, to search for particular memories - as we all do, now that our phones and our cameras and our planners and our diaries are all more or less in the same pocket.

But this was different.

In the last few months at our first site, in Sukhothai, I was at the primary school, looking out from the walkway on the second floor, toward the cafeteria and the kindergarten buildings, which were across the soccer field from the main school building, when the Google Streetview car drove past, its Silicon Valley logo prominent on the white vehicle, with a bulbous camera sticking out about a foot and a half from the roof. It drove at a normal speed. I couldn't see the driver. I watched it turn out the school driveway and leave. I told Josh about it when he came home, and then more or less forgot about it.

Months later, in Khon Kaen, I wanted to send a postcard to the school. I looked it up on Google Maps to see if the address was available. To my surprise, "Streetview" was an option, so I clicked it. There, plain as day, was the painted cinder-block fence that marks the entrance to the school, it's newly painted name in blue against a bright white background. I was shocked, but didn't dwell on it.

At that time, I just wrote out the school's name and sent the postcard.

But last night, we pulled up Google Maps - first to take a look at the route Josh had taken on his run... then to investigate the satellite imagery and streetviews of my aunt and uncle's house (which, to their shock and not-quite-but-almost-horror, is quite clear, and recent!), and then to check out their son's house up the hill (which was not at the right address and not recent), and then finally to show them our home in Thailand.

It turns out that the Google Streetview Car had mapped my old neighborhood. Just a few years after internet made it to the village, just a couple of decades after trees were cut down to make room for electric lines, and this tiny village that's so unknown, so unfathomable to most of my friends and family back home, and even more off the radar to most of America - is now not only "on the map," but there, in full, bright, clear, and living color. 360 degrees of it, and possible better quality than half the photos I ever took while I was there.

I don't know how I feel about this. I was literally able to take a virtual trip down memory lane. To stop and look and turn around at certain people's houses, at the market, at the plastic store, at the rice fields that are so indescribably beautiful, a sea of brilliant green. That in and of itself was weird. Cool, yes, but weird. That between the time the Goole car captured the bridge over the klong and the last time I was there, the bridge has been painted. That between the time I left and now, immeasurable small changes are occurring, ones that I can't monitor, and I can't access, but that eventually, perhaps, will be captured in another drive-by photo-shooting by Google.

I can't decide if I'm feeling good or bad or indifferent toward the fact that an American corporation is mapping out details of the whole world. That this much information is available. I don't know if the mystery about life in Thailand (or anywhere, for that matter) is diminished or increased by the fact that everyone's front porch is now in the public domain. I don't know if it feels like an invasion of privacy - or a complete anonymization of everyone's life, lived experiences, that it all ends up online.

All I know, is that it made me tear up. It put me back into a place that was difficult and that I grew to love, that I may never see again, except in my mind's eye, and in virtual reality.

So while we made it safely out of Thailand, by train on April 21st,

        and arrived in Malaysia to the island of Penang on the 22nd, saw historic Georgetown and marveled at how it was HOT like Thailand, but otherwise NOT at all like Thailand,

        and made it from Georgetown to Kuala Lumpur - KL, if you will, because that's what the locals call it, where we marveled at how it was a lot like the West - skyscrapers and highways and walkways and clean streets and trash pickup - and also how it was not at all like the West,

        and then from there safely to and through the KL airport (KLIA) - both forwards and backwards because even seasoned travelers get confused in unfamiliar airports,

        and flew to the Gold Coast and took local public transport from there up to Brisbane and to the Sunshine Coast, borrowing kind strangers' phones and getting discounts off of bus fare because we didn't have any Aussie money (not in the right denominations anyway),

        and even though we've settled in to my aunt and uncle's house on the edge of a tiny remaining patch of rain forest less than ten minutes' walk from the beach...

even though we did all that - and we're on our way home - there's a lot of us still left in Thailand.

Friday, November 28, 2014

October and Islam

Following a year break, the y chromosome bearing author of this blog is back with another entry on events since we moved to Isan and started our lives at the College of Local Administration.

We have been at the University for about 7 months now.

Last month, I made a trip down south to visit our friend JM's 3rd year site, a Muslim school in Nakhon Si Thammarat (NST) province, and to accompany him on a journey across the isthmus to meet some of his student's parents at their homes. A legendary third 3rd year volunteer, who will be the subject of an entire post or perhaps short book someday, also joined us for the journey. We will call him Danchai.

The Muslim School
JM lives somewhat isolated on the madrasa campus about 30 minutes out of the capital city of Nakhon Si Thammarat. A boarding school, typically the place would be overrun with veiled and capped students, but we arrived during closed session because of the goal of our trip. For geographical and political background, the NST province is at the north end of the deep south of Thailand. PC volunteers are not allowed to travel to the four provinces below because of military and terrorist activity. In NST, residents are predominantly Muslim but generally speak Thai, however Thai rapidly gives way to Malay languages as you travel south toward the provinces below. A large portion of the curriculum at JM's school is dedicated to Islamic study, and the rules of the schools operation are very much defined by Islamic doctrine. For example, boys and girls study in separate classrooms after about 6th grade. During free periods, strict rules are in place for how students of the opposite sex can interact and student consumption of various forms of media are strictly controlled. We did not get the full experience at the school, because of the absence of students, but we did have some wonderful southern food, and good conversations with members school founding family about Thai affairs, and the historic political positions of the Muslim south. JM had just finished showing Raiders of the Lost Arc to his students, which he has to break up into parts to coordinate with the prayer schedule, and also for a boys and then a girls showing.

The following day, Danchai and I set off to pay a vist to my friend Dr. Nipon in the Thung Song district where he is a professor of agriculture at Rajamangala University and has specialized in the Sago palm tree for many years. This variety of palm grows between very specific latitudes in the tropics and has the unique feature of its wood yielding a starch product edible by humans. Danchai and I stayed with Dr. Nipon and his wife Awe (an elementary school teacher, and fellow Sago expert) at their country home, a unique, multi-structure, elevated building in the hills of NST. Their 15 acres of land there look like your garden loving grandma's would if she lived in the tropics, surrounded by plants that only a professor of agriculture can talk about so compellingly and full of flowers most of us Americans think only exist in Alice in Wonderland films. Awe prepared a southern Thai dinner including the best Massaman I have ever had, Chinese style short ribs, an indigenous brown rice variety, and of course Sago gelatin for desert.

The following day Danchai and I accompanied Dr. Nipon to the University where we met with several students from his AgriBusiness degree program, as well as his assistant, the capable (and I would be remiss in not saying one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen) professor Ja. Here we discussed the Peace Corps with students from the first graduating class of the program and talked to them about their post-graduation plans, Dan's and my present work in Thailand, and connecting the massive agriculture industry in Southern Thailand to the international market, which as I understand it is the reason Dr. Nipon designed the AgriBusiness program.

Dr. Nipon, Ja, Danchai and students

One of the students mentioned he was working on a protein/PowerBar type product made from local Thai crops, specifically aimed at weight lifters. If he had been testing them on himself, they were clearly effective as this kid was pretty stacked up. Dan and I left our emails on the white board telling the students if there is ever anything we can assist them with from scholarships to research, to please be in touch.

Anda's House
That afternoon we met up with JM again and had lunch with Dr. Nipon and Ja, then proceeded to the province of Phang Nga, where we were picked up by a 8th grade student Anda and his grandfather in the capital. Within a few minutes of being in the truck with the two of them, Anda's level of English comprehension and speech was surprising everybody, including JM. We found out that neither of Anda's parents would be in the village when we arrived, and  that both of them work in tourism and as such have learned a bit of English. Anda seemed to have picked up everything his parents had in the English department and probably set himself up for a new semester with a lot more questions from JM. When we arrived in the village around 9, prayer was coming out over the loud speakers. If you have not experienced this sound before, it is quite moving. We entered the sparsely furnished home, passed a couch and LCD TV, two prayer mats in front of windows aimed at Mecca, and were introduced to Anda's grandmother and a few other relatives who lived in the dusty, cob webbed home. Grandma and grandpa both had zero English, and their southern Thai dialect had me understanding less than about 50% of what they said.

They showed us to a small room where the three of us would sleep, and then to a table topped with a heap of fresh crab and a few fish curries. Despite our pleading with the family to eat with us, they did not. JM and Dan spent the next 45 minutes teaching me how to eat crabs in false New Jersey accents. Following dinner we recruited Anda for a night time tour of the village where we ran into more of JM's students as we walked past dozens of wooden long-tail fishing boats in various levels of repair parked in the tidal inlets. The boats were all abandoned at that hour, but those that were still serviceable had lights of different colors on them, each blinking at different intervals. I assumed this was so the owners could find their boat among the others. Standing at the end of this dock in the dark, stepped over by dozens of tourists daily on their transfer from one island to a new boat going to another, was like standing on the other side of a mirror reflection. I could see what the old concrete dock looked like to the people that work (sleep) there every day.

Anda shows us the way

The following morning we toured the village some more, talked to some locals about how they were making rubber sheets from rubber "water", and spent a long while chatting with the men in a tea shop. I drank the Red Cup instant coffee I had bought a pack of at the market from the same tiny glasses they took their hot tea in, and interviewed Anda about the pros and cons of studying with JM, at his Islam school, and separately from the girls. He mentioned that since the girls have been gone, the boys do pay more attention in class, though it is louder in the classroom than it was before.

Ko Panyi
Little footballer and the floating field
Is the island made famous by a viral youtube video showing a floating soccer field they built there 20 years ago. They now have 2. The whole island is built on stilts over the ocean where depending on the tide the water is between 0 inches and ten feet below the floor of everyone's house. It is all Muslim, and no alcohol is permitted on the island. Electricity comes from a generator, and their water supply is piped seven kilometers underwater from the mainland.

Here we were greeted by 3 students when we stepped off the boat, one of them wearing a bandage around his foot, blood having soaked through and dried on part of it. We were taken to a house to drop off our bags, and then to eat a bunch of delicious fried foods at one student's mother's doughnut shop.
Half stuffed with delicious greasy treats, we were directed to a restaurant. Here the kids told us that our original sleeping location had been changed to our current room, because the kid with the bandage of his foot, had fell through the floor (and into the water) of the room we were to sleep in earlier that day. The owner of that house explained that when the tide is up, sometimes larger boats will pass by and send a wake right into his living room. He explained this by saying "right now, house on water. boat pass, water on house!" and then laughing hysterically. I started laughing too.
House on water

We had a huge lunch of fried shrimp, and other tasty favorites that started with our waiter spraying bad English at us at high speed, as sometimes Thais in the touristed areas do. When the students informed the man that JM worked where he does, we recognized for the first time the weight this carries with Thai Muslims in the South. The man's attitude relaxed, and when we finished eating we were told that 600 baht lunch was free and the son of the owner, a 16 year old student of JM's school (though not a student of JM's) came out to tell us that I should stop arguing about paying the bill, and that he would be taking care of it personally.

We talked with student's families that evening over dinner and later at another house for tea about the history of Ko Panyi. The story goes that the landless Isle was settled about two hundred years ago by only 2 families of fishermen from Java. As the story was told by different people to JM, Danchai, and myself, it seemed to deviate slightly, but had generally the same facts. Fast forward to the 20th century and it turns out that in many cases three generations of the families on Ko Panyi have studied at the Muslim school in Nakhon Si Thammarat where JM is now teaching. When locals found out that our buddy was teaching their kids, at a Muslim school to which many of them and their relatives had gone themselves, our popularity on Ko Panyi went through the roof! The next day our golden ticket JM had us on a free tour of the Ao Nang National park islands before we set off to the next stop, my boy Se's place on Ko Yhao.

Ko Yhao
Shellfish Assassin
I saw my first live rock or mantis shrimp which is a terrifying creature of which some species can break right through shell fish.
Me and the boys heard a tremendous rendition of the Job to Do classic: Du Ter Tam at the Para Bar, started making a Peace Corps infomercial for Thai government offices interested in getting a volunteer and I went on a 6 mile run through the rubber groves stopping to talk to locals about the rubber situation in Thailand.

Notes on Thai Muslim country: The call to prayer put chills on my neck when it echoed over the village at dusk. I made a fool of myself just a couple of times by asking if they had ground pork available at a restaurant. Thai Muslims are a soft people with Thai generosity and and a Muslim reservedness. Every place gets old, noted by the 12 year old boy who told me the Andaman was not pretty to him, and nor was James Bond Island which he had been to 1000 times.

More pics can be found here: South with the boys

For the experience. Red

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Goings On

In our last post, I promised I'd update with pictures of some of the things we've done lately.

Young Conservationists Camp
A few months ago, a PCV colleague at Khon Kaen University and I went to another volunteer's site to participate in a Young Conservationists Camp that her local government office was hosting. There were about 40 high school students who participated, and we went to a national park for the weekend. The national park staff were fantastic, leading the students in songs and games, and talking to them about the importance of maintaining the forest, the national parks, and the environment. They talked a lot about illegal logging of teak and rosewood, which is currently the most expensive wood in the world, and in high demand in China, apparently. It's a rapidly disappearing species because of the profit it draws, and this national park is home to many hundred or more year old trees, which are more or less always in danger from those who come under cover of night to get as much precious wood as they can. On the road leading away from the community, there's a checkpoint where people are apprehended nearly everyday trying to sneak truckloads of the wood out of the protected area.

To the left, I'm with the director of the national park, and we are planting a rosewood sapling. It was one of about 50 that got planted that day. The kids worked in groups to clear the ground and plant these trees, early on the second day of the camp. After planting the trees, we conducted a buat bpa or forest ordination, in which a monk came and performed an ordination ritual for the trees. The ordination is a kind of transmutation ceremony, one which transforms the trees into pra or monks.

Below, the monk and the park director tie monk's robes around the trunk of a rosewood tree. Together, the group of students and park staff ordained (and thus protect) around 15 trees.

This very Thai conservationist technique takes advantage of the deeply held Buddhist beliefs of most of the Thai population - no Thai Buddhist would dare to cut down a monk. 

UPDATE: March 2, 2015: I just came across this video (thanks to a fellow PCV) that helps to explain the work this monk is doing: and the thinking behind it.

Meechai's Bamboo School Comes to KKU
Some time after the ordination of the trees, I was lucky to be able to attend a presentation at the university by Meechai Viravaidya, who is somewhat of a legend in Thailand (and in public health circles) for his extremely successful campaigns to make condoms and birth control available to women and families throughout rural Thailand.
Me with Mot, a senior, who wants to study in Germany.

His efforts are credited for helping to reduce the birthrate among Thai families from around 7 to around 2, in just over a generation. Now, after a varied and impressive career that has included the establishment of several resorts in his "Cabbages and Condoms" chain, he runs a school which is partly funded by proceeds from Cabbages and Condoms enterprises. He came to KKU to present about his school, where a lot of the focus is on teaching the students entrepreneurial and business skills, and where, in order to do so, the students take a lot of the responsibility of running the school - right down to interviewing prospective teachers!

When I tried to talk to him after his talk, he politely waved me off and told me to talk to his students instead. "They run the school," he said. Their English was excellent, too.

ASEAN is coming!
Getting ready for the opening of the AEC, or ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Economic Community, which is set for next year, is a big focus of many organizations in Thailand. Somehow I ended up attending this ASEAN day, sponsored by the international college at the university, and got to see some performances by a few of the international students who attend KKU.

On the left: The Burmese women from Myanmar. My friend Rody is on the far right.

Below, Rody, Me, and two of her friends from Myanmar. 

Below are the women from Cambodia. There were also performances by the group of students from Vietnam, and the students also sat on a panel to answer questions about their life in Thailand. Thai students who had studied or done internships abroad as part of their educational requirements also participated in the panel discussion; it is fascinating to see the mix of cultural perspectives, and to imagine the way that this region will change and develop over the decade or so after the AEC actually becomes a reality. 

 For many Thais, the opening of the AEC is scary - work permits and student visas will be easier to obtain, allowing citizens of all ASEAN member countries to attend school and work abroad much more easily than they can now. The working language of ASEAN is English, and that will be a hurdle to overcome in the next several years. Although many signs proclaim that Thailand or various institutions are "ready for ASEAN" there is still a great deal of (warranted) anxiety about what next year will bring.
We spent several days in Khao Yai National Park, where we did a wildlife tour and a "trek" in which we encountered enough creatures to make it a worthwhile getaway. 



Sweaty travelers


On the home front
And now, for several weeks, we have been laying low at home. Our most exciting adventures usually involve the song taew, or pick up truck with two benches in the back, so I thought I'd get a picture of that in here.

Song Taew: Our Chariot
Market day
And it's always a good day when we come home with peanuts and coconut oil from the local market.

Wan Kru (Teacher's Day)
Laying low doesn't always mean skipping out on cultural activities. Just last week was the annual Wan Kru, or Teacher's Day. Teachers are afforded extremely high respect in Thai culture, and students honor their teachers by presenting them gifts of jasmine garlands or other intricate symbolic offerings made from flowers and banana leaves, much like the kratongs that are made on Loy Kratong.

For this teacher's day, the students worked in groups based on their majors to create the offerings for the teachers. This one, below, by the Construction Management students, was particularly endearing.

And of course, since I am kind of like a teacher, even though I'm totally not a teacher, I was given this hilarious robe to wear to participate in the ceremony, which involved twenty instructors sitting in chairs on a stage while various representatives from the student body came up and offered the aforementioned kratongs to us, kneeling and then prostrating themselves before in a display of total deference that is definitely somewhat unnerving, but also a radical illustration of just how important teachers are considered to be here.

 Even our dean, whose mentor was a former dean at the college who stays on in a Professor Emeritus capacity, later knelt before him and presented him with a small garland of jasmine, and wai-ed to him in a gesture of deep respect.

The gown, for the record, is like a very fine mesh, and the sleeves were at least 3 inches past my fingertips, hence the odd posture. It's a good thing I wore heels that day, or I don't know what would have happened!
I'll leave it at that, with this especially awkward picture of me.

Friday, August 22, 2014

On Citizenship

Dear Friends, Family, and Fellow Americans (countrymen has a better ring, but that's just so.... archaic):

It's been a while since we've updated this blog, and there are a number of reasons for that.

First, the whiny reasons: We now work in an office, and we don't do as much "cultural" or "interesting" stuff as we used to. We are more used to some of the things that used to make for amusing and dramatic tales of life abroad (like ants), and so we don't think to write about them anymore. Now, since those whiny reasons are out of the way, here are some of the deeper reasons that I, for one, haven't written.

1) There was a coup. And I wasn't sure how I felt about that, or how to write about it, in a public forum, on the internet, while living (as we still do) in a military controlled state.
2) My work this year is specifically focused anti-corruption and integrity education, and that has ripples into democracy education, citizenship rights promotion, and various other things that are harder to understand in a cross-cultural context, harder to write about and make exciting than the ups and downs of life in a rural village, and well, see 1, above.
3) For a while, the world has been somewhat ugly, and to be honest, that gets me down and makes it hard to write about any of the ups, or downs, or funnies that I experience in my life abroad.

I promise that I have a lot of pictures and a lot of fun things that I want to write about and share with you. But right now, I have to say, America's pretty ugly, too. And I have just a few things to say to Americans, a few reminders, if you will. (Reminders I hope to keep in mind, myself, for the rest of my life.)

On citizenship: Americans, we live in a wonderful, incredible country, founded on lofty ideals of equality and citizen participation. And it is the participate of our diverse citizenry that makes our country great, and makes our country strong.

I don't want to go on a long diatribe about anything right now. I just want to say - Americans, you are citizens of a great country. But it cannot be a great country if you do not participate in making it great. Protests. Letters to your local and state representatives. Showing up to vote in local, state, and federal elections. Going to your neighborhood meetings. And protecting your rights to assembly, free speech, due process, and the right to live in the kind of community that is reasonable, respectful, and reflects the values that you hold dear. Participate, debate, respect.

Watching the escalation of protests in Ferguson has been unsettling and scary for me, and is the real reason I feel like I have to write something to America now. Not only do we have the issue of white police officers shooting an unarmed black men and a terribly inept official response - a narrative that has repeated itself far too many times in far too many places - but the show of military force by the police is terrifying. We should not be a country in which the conflict of ideas and the rightful demonstration of anger by citizens becomes a war between the state and those citizens. The show of force is itself a kind of violence wrought against those who would speak out against the state. The raising of guns against citizens, even those who are shouting in protest, is itself a violence. It is a threat, an attempt to suppress. In other countries, we condemn this kind of violence against citizens. We level sanctions and travel warnings when unrest like this occurs. We call for debate. We call for civil engagement. We call for democracy.

We cannot call for democracy elsewhere until we participate in it, until we demand that our government institutions protect our rights within our own democracy, and until we reject the militarization of the force that is supposed to protect us and serve us.

Dear Americans, please remember that you make America. But you don't make it great if you don't speak up and demand that America be the place that you want it to be. I don't want to be the citizen of a country that has tanks in the streets and allows snipers to train their rifles on citizens, no matter how angry those citizens are.

An updated note: A friend of mine posted something on Facebook, something that said, "Stop Blaming the Police." While the GIF that's been going around has a number of statistics that didn't impress me much, I was reminded to step back into my understanding of the situation and look deeper. Ah - the virtues of Facebook debate: Thank you, friend. Later, I heard an interview with Anna Deveare Smith, a playwright who took the tragedy of the Rodney King riots, and wrestled with them in a one-woman show. On Ferguson, she reminded us that "the cops are on the front line, and when these explosions happen, they become the main characters. But we are all involved in this. ... They are acting out the drama - the cop and the kid - for all of us while we sit back and watch." Indeed. We are all involved in this. So don't blame the police. Don't blame "the system." Don't blame the man. Activate your own involvement - and we can start making changes. Participate. Debate. Respect. Change.

Friday, May 23, 2014


Well, things went from martial law to military coup. Nevertheless, we are safe. We are in contact with Peace Corps staff and are far from any unrest.

What we know is only as much as the international media are reporting and what we can find online. We have been advised to stay at our sites and not travel, and obviously to obey the new curfew that went into effect last night.

If there are any serious updates to provide, we'll do so. But for now, just know that we are safe and sound and fascinated to be here at this time in Thailand's history.

Monday, May 5, 2014

On Giving Thanks

Last month there came a day that would have been the official end of our 27 month commitment to Peace Corps Thailand. On that day we stayed up all night doing laundry and packing, and then at first light piled ourselves into a taxi, and then onto a plane, for what turned out to be around 36 hours in total transit door-to-door from Bangkok to New Orleans.

Fortunately, that particular day wasn't how we marked the end of our tour of service. Instead, we joined the fresh-faced, newly minted Peace Corps Trainees in their Swearing-In Ceremony. Starting their journey as we finished ours, they stood and raised their hands to swear the oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution, and to defend it against all foes, foreign and domestic. Those of us who made it to the end sat in silence and watched and listened, reflecting on all of the moments and the memories that comprise our two years of Peace Corps service. While the U.S. ambassador to Thailand was ill and couldn't make her scheduled speech, we were lucky, truly lucky, to have the Deputy Chief of Mission, W. Patrick Murphy, speak in her stead. Not only is he a gifted speaker, he is also a genuinely warm human being and a returned Peace Corps Volunteer. So, needless to say, he had a few relevant things to say on that day. I only remember one, however.

When you get back to America, he said, when you step off the plane in your "Peace Corps uniform" (he smirked, and so did we), no one will thank you. No one will thank you for your service, even though they should, because what you do, he said, is invaluable. So let me say it, on behalf of America, on behalf of everyone, "Thank you for your service."

Well, that was nice, I thought, that he thanked us. But what stuck with me was a feeling of needing to steel myself against the possibility that no one else would say it. No one will thank you. It almost became a mantra, it lodged so forcefully into my subconscious expectations of what the month long home-leave would be like. I didn't feel negatively about it, merely strengthened by the warning and thus ready to face the inevitable disappointment when neither gratitude nor interest regarding my two years away was particularly forthcoming from others.


On maybe the second or third day in New Orleans, we made the somewhat questionable decision of going out for tacos with my Dad and step-mom, who had graciously opened their home to us for a week, and also let us borrow their cars, spend quite a bit of their money on delicious food, and generally relax and recover from jetlag in peace and quiet.

At any rate, after we'd ordered appetizers from the busser who set down our four ice waters, the platinum-blonde, fifty-something waitress came over to the table balancing a giant tray of tomatoes, avocados, jalapenos, and limes between her shoulder and palm. As she swirled the tray down from her shoulder onto the tray stand she'd set up with her other hand, she greeted us, and my father, never one to miss an opportunity to turn a stranger into a familiar, promptly let her know that he was here tonight with his daughter and her husband, who'd just returned from serving two years in the Peace Corps in Thailand. With the now halved avocado turned upward in one palm, a spoon poised to scoop it's meaty flesh out to begin the ritual of table-side guacamole (which I could not wait to eat, my mouth already salivating as my brain conjured up the heavenly taste of fresh, ripe avocado and lime), she stopped suddenly, and looked directly, deliberately, at us.

"Thank you," she said. "Thank you for what ya'll are doing over there. Thank you." She said it as sincerely as I have ever heard anyone say anything.

My mouth stopped watering and my eyes immediately started. Deborah, or Tammy, or Kathy, or Dolores - she could have been any of those - had stopped my heart in an instant. I briefly wondered if she had misheard my father and thought we were in a branch of the military, but then decided that a) that was cynical and rude of me to think and that b) I didn't really care anyway.

Later I wanted to kick myself for not asking her what her connection to Peace Corps was, or why she had so emphatically thanked us for our service. But it didn't really matter. It doesn't. I will cherish that moment as though it were preserved under a glass case, frozen in time, forever.


Ultimately, that brief encounter colored my experience at home: gratitude, perhaps, must be at the center of all we do, or it's easy to start taking everything for granted.

For over two years, we had been enveloped in the kindness and generosity of Thais, who have accepted us, and loved us, and many, many times, simply shaken their heads at us and let us do something they thought was crazy. In coming back home, I was overwhelmed with kindness, too. From our first week in New Orleans, our weeks in Albuquerque, and even during our jaunt in Tokyo, and our return to Bangkok, I was shocked and heartened to discover that kindness, and love, and generosity are alive and well all over the globe.

To our friends and family, all I can say, is thank you. For the use of your cars, your extra beds, your phones, your homes, your old clothes, your shoulders, your ears, your time, your music, your food, your arms, and most of all, your beautiful, beautiful hearts: thank you.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

On the way

As usually happens, all the best intentions of writing in order to keep track of the whirlwind were dashed within it instead.

Tonight is our last night in Thailand, signalling the end of 27 long months as Peace Corps volunteers in our small village in Sukhothai province. Tomorrow morning, we'll find ourselves 30,000 feet above the country that has hosted us, fed us, loved us, and schooled us for the past two plus years.

It is difficult to say anything about how this feels, let alone attempt to remark on it in an accurate and meaningful way.

I am as confused as when we started this journey, and just as hopeful and scared, too. There is nothing to do but put one foot forward in front of the other and see where the path leads. And so we go on. On the way to somewhere.