A shorter version of this article appeared in The Westfield Leader in April 2007.
Two Januarys ago I was in San Francisco slowly walking down a tarmac headed towards a Delta jumbo jet, which would take me first to Tokyo and then to Bangkok. All in all I would be traveling for the next twenty-four hours. At the time this seemed difficult, hard to imagine, romantic even. Now traveling for twenty-four hours seems, I don’t know, basic, obvious. Sometimes I get on a twelve-hour bus and realize I forgot to bring something to entertain me, like a book, and it’s fine. I just sit there. It’s fine.
Things have changed.
When I left for the Peace Corps I had one quote I held dear. It was a quote I repeated heavily during the six-months between graduating college and Peace Corps. It was my justification for everything, for what I was doing. It was the only thing I understood. It was all I had. This was the quote. It’s told through the perspective of a homeless man speaking to a volunteer in a soup kitchen. It reads:
“If you are here to help me you are wasting your time, if you are here because your liberation is bound with mine than welcome.”
I still like that quote. But the word “liberation” doesn’t seem right anymore. Liberation from what? Liberation to where? I recognize that I am bound to you, that me being here depends on you being there. I recognize there is a balance. But liberation? That seems far-fetched.
I remember the autumn of 2005 well. I had graduated college. I was swinging between my college town and my hometown. I visited friends in Seattle, spent time in Warwick, NY, spent time with my grandmother in Pittsburgh, took ferries to Fisher Island to visit Gavin, went to Florida, to Maryland, to Providence, to Vermont. I lived out my backpack. I left my sleeping bag in Kate’s apartment in Ithaca. Left some of my paintings on the walls there. I left a trail of books behind me, up and down the eastern seaboard, like crumbs.
I was anxious. Moving made me feel more comfortable. So I moved, a lot. I was anxious I’m sure about the great unknown that was to come. I would read anything I could about volunteers in Thailand. About the stray dog problem (I was bitten by a stray dog last July, the rabies shot hurt more than the fangs), about the bad water, about the stomach sicknesses, malaria, bird flu, the heat, the lack of toilet paper (Yesterday I read the NY Times article online about the Manhattan yuppie family who stopped using toilet paper to decrease their environmental impact for one year. This article created a lot of stir in the blog community. A friend of mine, a volunteer in the northeast, likes to say, “get rid of the middle man.” The middle man being toilet paper. He means just using your left hand and water, which is what we have to do, some more than others, it depends on what part of the country you’re in… This doesn’t bother me anymore. I don’t think twice… I’ve been at trapped at a bus station at four in the morning with mild food poisoning using my own underwear as toilet paper while squatting over a hole in the ground… Too much information?)
That’s the thing. You just adapt. People can adapt to anything. I’m getting off topic. I get off topic all the time. Every article I’ve written here starts out as one thing and ends as another. I probably shouldn’t admit that, but it is what happens. And I reread it and think, look at this little idea that was just born. Just seemed to have fallen out of the sky.
As I was saying, before I came to Thailand I was anxious. And I spent quite a lot of time imagining what this experience would be like. Which is silly, of course. How can you imagine it? How can you even begin?
(I’ve seen a full tour bus turn too quickly, tumble down the embankment again and again and again, crunching, snapping down trees. I’ve seen a student’s split open head pouring blood on the pavement in front of a 7-11 his motorbike flung to the other side of the highway. I’ve bowed to Thailand’s crowned Princess. I’ve had informal lunches of noodles and chicken with the Governor of Phang nga. I woke up to a gecko stuck between my toes. I’ve bicycled by the same dog’s body for days flattened by a truck his mouth in an open snarl with teeth but flat. I’ve run at dawn while monks in orange robes collect rice and the Muslim prayers are being broadcasted and the sun begins to rise over the limestone cliffs that circle my town completely. I’ve gone running while a toad was trapped in the toe of my sneaker. I’ve had ice cream cones with Thailand’s Minister of the Interior and his wife. I have woken up at three in the morning to my father calling from Manhattan to tell me Thailand’s military has just overthrown the government, I’ve said back to him with this strange confidence of mine, “Don’t worry about it,” when I, of course, as always, have no idea what I’m talking about. I have witnessed the sunrise and set here more times than I think I have in my entire life before this, combined. I’ve written the speeches that the Governor will read to tsunami victims’ families and I’ll stand behind him under an umbrella in a skirt, sweating because of the heat. I’ve written letters to the families of tourists who are killed in freak accidents here vacation. I have once jogged by a very old man curled into the fetal position on the side of the road and saw a woman squatting on the other side looking at him dying, I ran on. I’ve climbed over the rail of a ferry in the middle of the Adman Sea, dropped down several feet and landed on my ass in a rowboat with an old, withered sea gypsy, he smiled, the ferry left and the man rowed me to an island… I am absolutely alone here… I can do these things absolutely alone. This morning I was running and got lost in a rubber tree plantation, didn’t know which road led me out. “Hello,” a Burmese woman said bravely baring her white, horse teeth under a big straw hat. I smiled back. I could not have imagined these things, expected them, or prepared for them. How could I have?)
Before I came to Thailand I was fixated on what would happen to me and what I would learn while I was here. I wanted to know what new knowledge I would have when I came home at the end of this experience. Would I have some worldly secrets? Is there something I could get from the field that I couldn’t find in books? What else could there be?
I was so eager for this knowledge, some could say I was greedy for it. The secret. The quest for this knowledge, ultimately, is what drove me to be a Peace Corps Volunteer in the first place. Now I do view this as greedy, I wouldn’t have then, two Januarys ago.
But things do change.
What have I learned here? Who the hell knows. I actually started out this article to write a whole list of things I learned, idealistic, hippy stuff. I was going to write a lot of stuff inspired by Buddhism. I wanted to write something about how I learned to treat everyone as if they are my mother, true compassion, stuff like that. But that’s not true. That’s only true for me on good days. And they aren’t all good days. I have shown shades of myself here that are more selfish, more cruel and greedy than I would ever want to admit. True, I have shown positive sides also, of course, but it has never been all positive.
I have become numb to things. Now I barely flinch when students are whipped with bamboo sticks for not being able to regurgitate the answers they were never taught in the first place. It is my classroom, they are my students, and some other teacher has walked in and beat my child in front of me for no good reason and I don’t do a thing.
My best friend here, a woman who adopted me into her family early on, left her husband several months ago, a man I taught with. Then he beat her up. She came my house late at night for money, showed me her bruises, she was asking for help, for something, and I turned her away. I have no idea where she is now. I still work with her husband.
I am, of course, leaving parts out. I always have been. But things have happened here that I’m not proud of. I have walked home at nights, walked up the hill towards the mountain by my house and I have thought, was I even a good person to start out with?
And I wonder, I always wonder, what on earth am I doing here?
My hair will fall out in clumps. I will see other Volunteers in Bangkok, we’ll get away, it will be relief, and we’ll drink heavily. I’ll go on three day binges with everyone else. We won’t speak a word about our villages, the people in our communities, our lives there. We will never bring that up. Just jokes, just alcohol. I will leave
Bangkok in a hung over haze. What are we doing? And more, what is happening to us here?
What have I learned here? This is what I know. There are moments in life that happen and that you hold. Like smooth stones you pick up and put in your pocket. I had a moment here recently. It was a Saturday and I was taking a very long bicycle ride out because I wanted to get far away and I wanted to ride through the plantations and weave around the jutting limestone cliffs because after all, it is beautiful here. And I was far out, maybe ten miles, maybe more, and for a place as small as my village that is far. There is nothing in sight aside from a few grazing water buffalo. There are two elephants I pass, men poking their sides with spears, the elephants are moving logs with their trunks. I am happy to be so distant. I am happy that no one knows where I am. I feel good. I feel distanced. I have one of those moments where I look around, at the beauty and vastness of it all and wonder where on earth am I? And how have I traveled here all alone? I think that no one here knows me. I am completely anonymous. I am in the middle of nowhere.
And then I hear my name. “Khun Mary! Khun Mary!” A boy and a girl in oversized, old t-shirts come running out of the trees. Random shirts, I think one has a distorted Nike swoosh in the center. Dirty knees and legs that are scarred and pitted with years of bug bites. “Khun Mary!” Their flipflops are slapping the dirt road.
I slow down. I stop. They are my students. I’ve taught them before. “What are you doing?” They ask in Thai, eager, wide eyed, excited. “I’m riding my bike.” I tell them, we smile, I mount, start to pedal off. They say “Goodbye” in English and giggle. They are very proud of themselves for remembering that.
“Goodbye!” They call out again. “Goodbye! Khun Mary! Goodbye!” They keep yelling until I am too far away and I can’t hear them anymore.
It was a moment. A realization that I am part of a community here. Here. A small village in Phang nga,
Thailand. I had no idea where this place was before Peace Corps tossed me here. But now, somewhere deep in southeast Asia there is a small corner, a town comprised of tin roofs and banana trees, limestone cliffs and vast rubber plantations, a small town where children will come running out of the edge of a rainforest, yelling my name. They will call out, “Mary, Mary.”
And I mean who would have ever imagined that? I do have a home here. “Home,” is a heavy word. Home is important. And maybe that is just a little crumb of that great big secret I imagined waiting for me deep in these underdeveloped jungles. I left my Home to travel and explore and roam and at the end of this great trip I will return to that same place, my Home.
I have learned here how rare that is, to have that, a home waiting for you with love and support. That is liberation. That is what I know.
I am fortunate.