I’ll Be Seeing You, Thailand..

Well, my time in Thailand has come to a sudden end.  If you have been keeping up with my latest blog posts, I’m sure you could take a guess as to why.  After exhausting my options in regards to flooding and other safety/security concerns, the Peace Corps Thailand Country Director and I came to the conclusion that I would be separated from Peace Corps on the grounds of interrupted service.  I ultimately qualified for interrupted service under three conditions: circumstances beyond the control of the volunteer may damage the effectiveness of the individual, or the credibility or effectiveness of the Peace Corps program; circumstances in the country of assignment may endanger the volunteer’s safety; the volunteer was a victim of serious crime.

(I’d like to clarify that although I was a victim of crime, the incident had approximately zero percent to do with the end of my Peace Corps journey.)

I won’t lie, it is nothing short of devastating to be leaving Thailand 17 months earlier than I had intended.  Just two weeks ago, I was still putting money and effort into making my humble house a home.  I am, however, at peace with the situation now.  Though, I am sure I will experience mixed emotions over the coming weeks.  I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason.  There is a reason that Peace Corps was part of my destiny and there is a reason that my time in Peace Corps was less than initially expected.  If my time in Thailand has taught me anything, it is that you can always find the silver lining.  There is always a bright side, no matter how overwhelming the darkness may seem.

I am unable to find words adequate enough to summarize the past year and the emotions that are washing over me as I prepare to leave the faces and places I have learned to call home.  I am excited for the next chapter; heartbroken to leave my village; nervous for the inevitably numerous times I will have to attempt to summarize Peace Corps and explain my abrupt departure; unready for the overstimulation that comes with the ease of understanding all of those conversations to the fullest extent; fearful for the subjectively freezing temperatures of a Maryland October… and so much more that I simply don’t have the energy to dive into at this point.

Perhaps I will write another blog post when I am able to confront all of these feelings and put them into strings of words that make even the slightest bit of sense.  Perhaps not.  I will be more than happy to answer any and all questions as best I can upon seeing people at home.

Thailand, thank you for having me.  Thank you for molding me.  My love for you is infinite.  I will be back sooner than later.



Journal Entry: 9/30/17

Well, I am displaced, yet again, due to flooding.  This time, only two days after my return.  To say I would rather be in America right now is a massive understatement.  I am beyond stressed.  I just shed some tears in front of Rosie for the first time.  Kru Moosa was also there to witness my momentary breakdown, making it all the more awkward and particularly humiliating.  On a somewhat bright side, if there is one, I am slightly relieved they saw that side of me.  I am hoping it can help them to understand that this is not a lifestyle I am accustomed to and it can often be overwhelming.  Sometimes, I wonder if they remember I am not Thai.  Sometimes, I wonder if they remember I am human.

I’d be lying if I said thoughts of ETing (early termination i.e. quitting) hadn’t crossed my mind.  It’s hard (and only getting harder) to live like this when I feel like I don’t have a home or safe haven to return to.  The home I do have causes me to anxiously lie awake at night when it rains, bracing myself for the morning’s verdict.  Will I once again find myself under vulnerable circumstances, unsure of where I will temporarily be seeking refuge?  Or will Mother Nature have graciously spared me from her havoc?

Again, due to Peace Corps’ seemingly apathetic response, I am left wondering just where the safety and security of volunteers ranks amongst its priorities.  A hefty portion of training was devoted to emergency protocol and we were assured that staff would be there for us in such situations.  So why is it that when I call the emergency contact, no one answers?  Why is it that when I finally am able to reach someone, they ask me what the plan is?  Why is the only plan they suggest to make another volunteer in a nearby village, experiencing similarly severe weather, responsible for me?  Why do we practice an entire evacuation drill only to never use it in the precise scenarios it should be used for?  Instead, I find myself unsupported during the times I need it most.  I am left to fend for myself amidst the unfamiliar and completely overwhelming chaos, leaving me asking myself what I am even still doing here.

While my pride has previously landed me in some less than ideal situations, it is currently my saving grace.  If it wasn’t for my pride, I would have thrown in the towel and booked a one-way flight home at the site of villagers, once again, paddling makeshift boats down my street this morning.  At this point, I’m just curious exactly how far one’s pride can take her.

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“But all these storms I know we’ll weather…” Seeking some Railroad Earth inspiration.

Weathering the Storm

I am currently experiencing my second flood within six weeks.  There was a sort of novelty to my first experience with flooding, likely due to the general lack of severity and thrill from the overall ‘newness.’  Oh my gosh!  A flood!  This is the Peace Corps I signed up for.  This is the experience I envisioned when I embarked on this journey to this foreign world.  A natural disaster runs through my rural village and I, the resilient volunteer, persist.  What a crock of sh*t.

I describe the first flood as generally not severe because, with my second flood underway, I am coming to understand just how severe a flood can get.  As I type this, I am at a friend’s house in her village about 15 kilometers from mine.  I know from pictures and fellow villagers that the first floor of my house is now completely submerged.  My house has two floors.  Although the bathroom and shower are on the first floor, it doesn’t get much other use since I was warned that my village, and particularly my housing, is prone to flooding.  I typically keep my bike on the first floor, but was fortunately able to move it to the second before evacuating yesterday.  The first floor of my house is cement, built purposefully to withstand severe weather and natural disasters.  The second floor, however, is entirely wooden with a tin roof.

I have been told that this monsoon is expected to continue wreaking havoc until the 26th of September.  With four more days and no signs of the rain slowing down, I am getting worried that the water will continue to rise and eventually reach my second floor, where the little that is everything I own is being stored.  I know that possessions are replaceable, but I can’t imagine losing the few familiar things I have when so much of my daily life is just the opposite – unfamiliar.  I’d be devastated to return to a damaged camera, soaked and illegible journals, and soggy photos of friends from home among other things.

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Photo I took before the flood had escalated as I was preparing to evacuate.

I am also worried about my students and their families.  I haven’t been able to stop thinking about one of my fourth graders that lives in a tin house (though, you could barely call it a means of shelter) just across from my school-grounds.  Her family doesn’t have the luxury of two floors and when it rains even slightly, I often pass by to see them huddled on a table, seeking refuge merely inches above the dirty rainwater.  Many of these families have nowhere to turn in the face of such tragedies and I can only imagine how they are managing to quite literally weather the storm.

It’s disheartening to sit here anxiously and helplessly as I look to social media for updates and see that fellow volunteers are using my community’s misfortune as a chance for a photo op before returning to their housing that sits on higher ground.  And it’s irritating to feel that Peace Corps as an organization hasn’t done their job in assuring my safety as a volunteer.  Perhaps what is worse is that I have come to expect the latter.

For now, I will rely on the power of prayer while I anxiously await my return and the massive clean-up that lies ahead.

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Photo my neighbor took and the last update I received on my housing.

Tiny Triumphs

Recently, I logged onto Facebook to see a post that a friend’s boat had won roughly $310,000 in a tuna tournament.  As selfish as I feel admitting this, my heart initially sank upon seeing this post.  I consider myself blessed to call this person a friend and have been lucky enough to witness his work ethic firsthand.  It’s admirable and pretty damn inspiring; and its often been a reminder that working in an unconventional field is by no means the wrong move, so long as you work hard and you’re content.  But while I was happy that my friend’s hard work and manual labor had finally paid off, I was reminded of the seemingly overwhelming lack of victories I have celebrated throughout my eight months here in Thailand.

While Peace Corps is unconventional in about every sense of the way, one of those ways is that I don’t earn a salary.  Per month, I am given enough money to get by on necessities, i.e. food and water.  The money that my friend won over the span of one weekend, would take me well over 100 years to earn as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  Joining Peace Corps, automatically monetary rewards are taken off the table.  I’m not often phased by this because it was part of the appeal of Peace Corps and I have come to appreciate living simply and well below the American standard of living.  I can think of a lot I would do with $310,000, though…

It’s the other victories that I am not seeing that are harder to cope with.  Since arriving at my site, I have learned just how vastly different the Thai school system is from the one I grew accustomed to in America.  This means that classes are more often than not cancelled and student and teacher no-shows are a regular occurrence, among other obstacles.  Needless to say, all of the pushback leaves little room for progress.  I struggle to understand my purpose in Thailand.  What difference am I making?  Where am I making an impact?  Am I making an impact?

After a lot of nail biting and an afternoon of uncertainty regarding my place as a PCV, I was reminded of just one victory.  Immediately upon arriving in my village, I noticed that I never saw women exercising.  Unlike America, streets aren’t littered with joggers due to the countless stray, rabid dogs.  There are occasional groups of bikers, but they are made up primarily of men.  Soccer fields are also male dominated.  But fitness has been a priority in my life since my dad first introduced me to tee-ball in the backyard of my childhood home and it was one thing I was not willing to sacrifice for the sake of integrating.  My Thai peers think I am crazy, but I purposely work out during the hottest time of day because I know it is when the most people will see me.  I want to normalize the idea that girls can be strong, too.  One afternoon, I was jumping rope in front of my house.  One of the neighborhood girls was on her way home from school as she passed me, glaring with a look that screamed, “what in the world is she doing and why is she doing it?”  I offered my most awkward smile and continued my work-out.  When I finished, I pulled the headphones out of my ear and turned to walk into my house to cool down with an ice-cold bucket shower as something caught my eye.  Just down the street, that same girl was jumping rope in front of her house.  I watched as she tripped over the red rope again and again, but persevered until she fell into a rhythm.

So while my efforts often seem futile, I’ll hold onto these little memories that remind me of my purpose.  The image of my neighborhood friend jumping rope serves as the reminder I often need that if my actions can influence even one young mind then that is purpose enough.

Embracing Unexpected Inspiration

Ramadan has come to an end and I am taking a moment to reflect on all that the past month has taught me.  While I did not participate in fasting for various reasons, I was fortunate to experience most other traditions and was able to soak in the essence of this holy month.  I won’t pretend to wholly understand Ramadan because I truthfully do not.  I don’t know much more than that it is a month of fasting in honor of the beginning of the Quran, which was initially unveiled to Muhammad from the angel Gabriel.  For the first three weeks of Ramadan, I, personally, was largely unaffected.  It was very difficult to find food as most vendors were closed for the month and the energy of both my fellow teachers and students was lacking, but that was about it.  During the last week of Ramadan, I was able to indulge in some delicious feasts and break fast with some authority figures within my community including the head of the Islamic Committee of Satun, which was admittedly pretty cool.  Did you know that when Muslims break fast, they begin with dessert?  I didn’t either.  Then, of course, I celebrated Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan.  On Eid, I joined some of the locals in going house to house and being offered food, food, and more food.  It was wonderful for someone who loves eating as much as I do.  And I even got to wear traditional Islamic wear, hijab included.

So there’s a synopsis of my Ramadan experience.  What is more important for me to talk about, however, is all that Islam has taught me during my first three months of service in Satun.  One of my favorite things about my village is that it is predominantly Muslim.  When I initially applied to Peace Corps Thailand, I did not have the slightest clue that there was a possibility I could be placed in a primarily Muslim village.  One of the things I was most looking forward to about coming to Thailand was gaining a better understanding of Buddhism because of my love of yoga.  It wasn’t until about midway through training that I discovered there was a very slight chance I could be one of the five volunteers placed in Satun.

But Islam and the devout Muslims I am surrounded by have done more for me in my first three months of service than I could have ever anticipated.  The women have become grandmothers, mothers and sisters.  The men have become fathers and brothers.  They always make sure I am fed and if I don’t finish the food on my plate because im lao  (I am already full), I am told that I am in fact not full and need to finish my plate.  And then subsequently told, “gin kao yut yut” (eat a lot of food) as more rice is thrown my way, just as any of my Italian family members would do, only with pasta (gluten free for me, of course).  They genuinely worry like my own mother would when I have so much as a stomachache or migraine (two things that happen a lot).  They invite me to their family dinners, teach me to make local dishes like som-tam, bring me smoothies and/or fresh fruit almost daily, accompany me to the local market and some even like me so much that they ask me if I am interested in being introduced to their son because they’d like me to marry him.

But most importantly, Islam has brought me closer to my own faith.  A very select few of my friends know just how much I have struggled with faith in my lifetime, particularly over the past eight years.  While it is true that I have rediscovered my relationship with God in the past two years, I still experience moments of reluctance and hesitation.  The hardships I have endured have often left me wondering how there can a God that would not only allow me to experience such pain in the first place, but watch me continue to suffer and not intervene.  I’ve come to learn that God doesn’t throw anything our way that we aren’t equipped to handle thanks to experience from previous trials and tribulations.  But realizing this doesn’t make actually believing this any easier when I’m feeling distressed.

Witnessing the devotion of my Muslim friends, however, has not only peaked my interest in Islam itself, but inspired me to reconnect with my own faith on a much deeper level.  Throughout my 23 years on earth, I have struggled to willingly make it to church for one hour 52 days a year while these people find joy in praying five times per 24 hours.  I find it difficult to do so much as not eat meat on Fridays during Lent.  And don’t even get me started on what it’s like for me to give up candy for a full 40 days.  So during Ramadan, I was awestruck by their commitment to fasting, regardless of external factors like climate or physical exertion.  I am continually amazed by the undying dedication.  Their faith isn’t a chore and it isn’t tedious.  It is their way of life.  And it leaves me asking myself… what more can I do for my faith?  For my God?

While I don’t have all the answers… well, do any of us ever have all of the answers?  Anyway, while I don’t have answers, I am grateful for the inspiration my community has offered me to dig deeper into my relationship with God, to ask those internal questions that are often easier to evade and to be at ease with where I am in regards to my faith.  Another lesson I have learned is this: the reason it is often so hard for me to turn to God is because of the guilt I feel when doing so.  I feel selfish because I only talk to God when I need Him, when I need His help.  But I feel guilty because I am unable to fathom the forgiveness that God has in His heart for all of us, for all of His sinners.  God doesn’t begrudge me for struggling with my faith as I have.  God forgives, God understands and God is patient.  Three things I surely need to work on and some of the virtues I am hoping to improve upon throughout my service.  My faith is a work in progress, but I am grateful for the daily inspiration I receive from my community members for bringing me even one step closer to where I want to be.



Somewhere Over the Pacific

On January 4th, the last words my dad said to me were, “and always remember the story of Wizard of Oz.”  What? I remember thinking.  I can’t recall if I voiced my confusion or if he merely noticed the perplexed look on my face, but my dad reiterated, “just remember the story of the Wizard of Oz.”  And then I was off, making my way to a gate in Baltimore’s airport, where a plane was waiting to depart for my Peace Corps orientation in San Francisco.

For months, I rolled my eyes at my dad’s ‘final words of wisdom.’  Mostly because I likely will do the same to my kids someday when they leave on their own great adventure.  I am, after all, a carbon copy of my father whether either of us like to admit that.  But also, because I hadn’t watched the Wizard of Oz in years and struggled to remember much more than the yellow brick road and that song about a rainbow that became popular all over again when some dude with a ukelele recreated it in 1993.  I refused, however, to take the easy way out and watch the movie to figure out the significance of my dad’s words.  Although it had been a while, I knew the movie’s message was still etched in my brain somewhere and I wanted to dig it up through my own experiences.

On June 25th, over six months since I last saw my dad , I sent me him a message that I had finally discovered the essence of his advice.  While most people see the Wizard of Oz as a timeless children’s tale, it is really so much more.  The Wizard of Oz is the story of a girl who leaves the seemingly dull life she has always known in search of something much greater.  On her journey, she makes three unlikely friends that also find themselves in a similar predicament and in search of something they’ve been missing… courage, heart and a brain.  The four friends face many obstacles on their voyage to see the great Wizard, who they believe will give them everything they have been looking for.  They overcome poisonous fields of flowers as well as an evil witch and her clan of flying monkeys.  Eventually, the group makes it to the wonderful land of Oz, only to discover they had courage, heart and a brain within themselves the entire time.  And while Dorothy learns so many valuable lessons on her pursuit of Oz, she is reminded that the grass isn’t always greener and there is ultimately “no place like home.”  The story of the Wizard of Oz is the story of my Peace Corps experience.

I left the life I had known for nearly 23 years in search of something bigger, something greater, something that home couldn’t offer me.  In just six months, I have come to know myself on a rawer level than ever before.  I’ve formed countless unbreakable bonds with my own unlikely companions along the way, all of which I can confidently say I wouldn’t have the privilege of knowing if it wasn’t for this wild ride.  But as I sit here, 9,235 miles from Maryland, I appreciate home on a much deeper level than ever before, as well.  I am so thankful for the places I have been able to see in my life and I look forward to the many other places I will go and the many other faces I will see.  But, I would be lying if I didn’t say that I am also very much looking forward to building a life stateside at the end of this journey.  Sometimes, those oases and grand journeys we dream up in our minds aren’t all they are cracked up to be.  Or maybe they are all they’re cracked up to be, but that doesn’t make the quaint small town you’ve called home your entire life any less spectacular.  There is something to be said for the backroads you know like the back of your hand and the local pizzeria that immediately knows your special order when you call in on any given night.

While embarking on this Peace Corps journey and moving to Thailand helped me realize my own courage, heart and brain… I am able to recognize that these things have been inside me the whole time.  And that is largely in part to none other than my father.  Since 1994, he has played a vital role in molding me into the woman I am today.  He helped me muster up the courage I needed as a 12-year-old, 100 pound, 5-foot-nothing softball pitcher facing batters much, much larger than me.  Then, he helped me muster up a new level of courage as a 22-year-old female college student seeking justice for relationship violence.  He helped me find my heart by telling me not to be hardened by experiences like the aforementioned and advising me to learn from his mistakes.  And he helped me find my brain by always, always, always stressing the importance of education and the value of forming independent opinions.  And, of course, he is one of my five reasons why there is “no place like home.”

Let the Good Times Roll

When I find the time to sit down and think about my recent experiences, it is always easier to write about the lows than the highs.  Why that is, I am not completely sure.  Perhaps it is because I find the release of feelings from pen to paper to be the most calming remedy.  I find myself venting about the hard times because the good times are so enjoyed within the moment, and subsequently forgotten and clouded by moments of hardship.

Last weekend, however, was one so full of joy that I can’t help but revel in the immense delight each moment brought me.  It started on Friday when my school hosted a Thai writing competition in which students from schools all over Satun came to write essays about the late king.  For me, this meant no teaching.  This also meant I was Thai-napped against my will by two fellow teachers that had only just discovered my love for seafood, steamed crabs specifically.  The term Thai-napped is derived from the word kidnapped because Thai people are notorious for getting you to unknowingly agree to random, day-long expeditions.  These two teachers informed me that we would leave to get lunch and I naively assumed that we would be heading only a few minutes down the road.  30 minutes later, I found myself sitting seaside, surrounded by wild monkeys and goats, eating steamed crabs and shrimp.  It was nearly impossible to soak in the beauty of the moment in its entirety.  There I sat, next to a table of ten or so monks, eating my favorite food (albeit without the Old Bay and white vinegar) under a bamboo hut, looking out at several islands just miles across the Andaman Sea.  It was the type of thing you could only imagine in your wildest dreams.  Except there I was, living it.  To make the day even better, the teachers surprised me with my own couple kilos of crabs to take home for dinner that night.  And at home, I had the supplies (i.e. that Old Bay and white vinegar I mentioned) to feast as if it was a summer night in Maryland.  And to top it all off, on the way home, we stopped for ice cream.  Twice.

Saturday proved to be just as fulfilling.  Some fellow volunteers and I decided to meet up at Pakbara, a beach in our province, about 30 miles from my village.  There are vans and songthaews (pick-up trucks with two rows for passengers in the bed) that run from my village to the destination, but my friend, Tiffany, and I decided to bike the 60 mile round trip instead.  I had previously decided it would be a goal of mine to bike to this beach during my service so what better day to try than the present, right?  I woke up at 7 a.m. that morning and nearly psyched myself out as I thought of the daunting voyage ahead.  unnamed-5But, I got on my bike anyway.  A quarter of the way through the trip, Tiffany and I realized we had underestimated the amount of hills and overall difficulty.  The way there seemed to take forever, but I experienced an overwhelming sense of accomplishment as I saw the sea inch closer and closer until we finally reached our meeting point.  Five of us spent a few hours catching up on our similar yet vastly differently experiences working in the Thai school systems and navigating the unique lifestyles we willingly thrust ourselves into.  The trek back to my village was even more exhausting, but I was greeted by the most breathtaking sunset upon my return.  Again, another perfect day.

As I have written in previous posts, the mental challenges heavily outweigh the physical obstacles.  But the beautiful thing about these hurdles, both mental and physical, is that they can be overcome with the right perception, disciplinary action and persistence.  And they are ultimately molding me into a much stronger, much better version of myself.  Each day, I prove to myself that I am capable of accomplishing just about anything I set my mind to, like biking 60 miles in a matter of hours.  Or having that two hour conversation in Thai without the help of Google Translate.  Or learning to french braid my hair, tonight’s endeavor.  And each day, I am gaining confidence in this path I have chosen, as well as the woman I am and the woman I am becoming.  To be honest, there are days when my only motivation is the reminder that I will get to meet the new and improved, far more bad ass, Liv at the end of this 27 month journey.

As a friend reminded me in a recent letter, “There’s always something to be grateful for.”  And today, I am grateful my Peace Corps journey in its entirety… the good and the bad.  Although, I still prefer the good.