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.

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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.

 

 

Relying on Resilience

It has been exactly two months and two days since I published my last blog post.  I’ve sat down to write this post time and time again, but each time, my fingers become paralyzed as they touch the pen or keyboard.  I have hardly been able to process the wide range of emotions that I have experienced over the past two months so how am I supposed to write about them honestly and eloquently?

Moving to site proved to be much more difficult than I ever anticipated.  I was stationed in Satun, one of the southernmost provinces in Thailand.  You can see the Malaysian border from my house.  My village is predominantly Muslim.  Most of the locals are a mix of Thai and Malay and many of them speak Malay, as well.  Some speak both Thai and Malay, but many speak one or the other.  Many of the Thai and Buddhist cultural norms and customs that I had become accustomed to in my training village no longer apply to me.  I often feel like I am not even in Thailand anymore.

While I rejoiced in the accomplishment that was completing training and swearing in, I look back and laugh at my naïveté.  Swearing in felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.  “I did it,” I remember thinking to myself as I assumed that the most exhausting days were over.  Little did I know that the greatest challenges were yet to come.

As an independent introvert, I didn’t expect the overwhelming loneliness that comes with being the only native English speaker in your village.  As someone who has hardly spent time at home since graduating high school, I didn’t expect the sometimes seemingly unbearable homesickness.  As someone who has always relished in the idea of living simply, I didn’t expect to miss the amenities of America that I now realize I took for granted my entire life (i.e. western showers, air conditioning, reliable access to water and electricity, etc.).  As someone who has always challenged herself and conquered adversity, I never expected to come so close to calling it quits.

At some point in mid-April, I thought I was going home.  I would sit on my bed, feet on the floor with my head in my hands, breathe deeply, and try to recall the reasons I chose to join the Peace Corps in the first place.  On most occasions, those reasons were impossible to recall, regardless of how long I sat there.  Instead, the following doubts persisted: I don’t belong here. I will never belong here.  How will I make it another two years here?  I will never make the impact that is expected of me.  Why did I throw away the beautiful life I had in America to come to… this?  I could have a career, I could be making money (literally any money at all) and be building the life I dreamed of as a little girl and thought I would adhere to until not even a year ago.  I am missing multiple weddings, some friends are having kids… Should I be doing that, too?  I felt trapped in my mind, sick to my stomach and aching in my heart as I would go through the motions of each day, looking for something, anything, to cling to that would offer me the epiphany I was looking for and desperately needed in order to stay.

Needless to say, the mental and emotional challenges have been inexplicably more difficult to overcome than the physical obstacles I face.  I still haven’t found a bulletproof way to fight my feelings.  I write, I send letters and postcards, I read (okay, I nap with the book open beside me), I take photos, I draw, I exercise… and yet, I still haven’t found that one thing that calms my anxieties and washes away my uncertainties.  And unfortunately, I sometimes lash out at some people that mean the most to me or pull away because there’s no way for anyone back home to understand.  But what I have been slowly realizing, is that for the first time in my life, I am confronting my emotions rather than pushing them aside.  All of them: the anger, the frustration, the sadness, the desperation and especially the special moments of indescribable happiness.  In my five months in Thailand, I have gotten to know myself at a rawer level than ever before, my strengths and my flaws and especially what I treasure most in life.  And for that alone, I am grateful for this rollercoaster of an experience.

I still have days where I want to go home.  I still have moments, many moments, of self-doubt and lack of clarity when looking toward the future.  But, that is all part of this ride.  This insanely beautiful, absurdly magical, entirely incomprehensible ride.

Trainee to Volunteer

I, Olivia Brocato, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same, that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge my duties in the Peace Corps. So help me God.

Fight Like a Girl

The past couple weeks of training have caused an extraordinary amount of anxiety to arise within me.  I have felt that anxiety from the moment I get up to the moment I go to bed nearly everyday for the past week and a half as I prepare to receive my site assignment this Tuesday.  Although training is coming to a close, our workload only seems to increase as time to complete that work winds down.  Lately, I have felt as though I lost sight of why I came here in the first place.

It wasn’t until I opened a letter from my younger sister that I was reminded.  While there are many reasons why I chose this unconventional path, one particular reason was the driving force that compelled me to take the plunge and apply to Peace Corps last spring.  I am a relationship abuse survivor.  In February of 2015, my on-again-off-again boyfriend of nearly two years put his hands on me for the first time, resulting in a black eye and a week spent at home during my second semester of junior year at University of South Carolina.  In November of 2015, after countless months of both emotional and physical abuse, that same boyfriend put his hands on me for what would be the last time when his irrational anger escalated to the point of strangulation.

While suffering from an abuse this extreme was inexplicably horrifying in the moment, the months following proved to be even harder.  After confronting a police officer that night, I began the process of holding this boy accountable and pressing charges.  I was forced to relive that night over and over as I had to tell my story to investigators, police officers, victim advocates, etc.  I had massive panic attacks just walking to my classes, out of fear that I would run into him.  I avoided restaurants and bars he frequented, and even refused to drive down his street, the main street in Columbia, because the flashbacks were too intense.  I was embarrassed to tell most of my friends what had happened so when they would take his road, I would shut my eyes to avoid seeing his car and apartment that triggered the unpleasant memories.  Then, I lost many friends once I confided in them.

The worst part of it all was the way I was treated by local law enforcement.  I didn’t understand why the police officer didn’t decide to look further into the situation the night of the incident.  I was even more confused when he took me home that night and almost drove off without giving me a copy of the police report, which I needed to pursue legal action.  It then felt like pulling teeth to get the lead investigator to meet with me to discuss how to move forward.  And once I was finally able, I will never forget the feeling in my chest when he muttered, “yeah, well, most of these cases tend to be vindictive girlfriends who get upset when they see their man has moved on.”

To say that the months following were anything short of hell would be an understatement.  I was immensely paranoid, anxious and depressed.  I didn’t sleep for months because I was kept up by flashbacks of what had happened and in of fear my ex-boyfriend suddenly looming over my bed.  I reached a low that I didn’t know was possible.  I had almost hit rock-bottom when I had an epiphany and shifted perspectives.

I am a middle-upperclass American who, at the time, was about to complete her college education.  But I am a woman, and that was my handicap.  Still, so much of my background seemed to outweigh that one detail.  Then it suddenly hit me.  I am an American woman with access to what many would consider to be the ‘best’ resources in the world to assist me through this trauma.  It pained me to think of fellow women living in less developed countries and entirely misogynistic societies suffering from the same abuse.  It pained me even more to think of the young girls and daughters in those households, witnessing (if not suffering) the abuse and growing up to think that mistreatment of women is okay.

Although Peace Corps had been on my radar since I was 16, it was this experience that solidified my decision to join.  And it was this experience alone that made applying to a position that incorporates Let Girls Learn so appealing.  Let Girls Learn is an initiative instated by Michelle Obama and Peace Corps plays a vital role as LGL volunteers coordinate girls’ education projects.  My involvement in this initiative is one of the things I am looking forward to most about beginning my two years of service in just a couple weeks.  As both a woman and a survivor, I am confident in my ability to be an empathetic resource to the girls I encounter in Thailand.

And so I am reminded of my reasons for being here.  When I signed up for this, I knew I would have moments of doubt.  But as my sister so eloquently reminded me in her letter, “fear is not a weakness or a sign that [I’ve] chosen the wrong path.”  In fact, it means quite the opposite.  Anyone who chooses to do anything worthwhile is bound to experience hardship along the way.  And as I have learned over the past year or so, how we conquer those hardships is what truly matters and molds us into the people we are destined to become.

P.S.: Happy International Women’s Day!  Although, let’s be honest, 24 hours isn’t enough to celebrate the amount of ass we kick everyday.

P.P.S.: I am including the forgiveness letter I wrote (but never sent) the aforementioned ex-boyfriend.  If my words can provide hope for even one person who finds themselves in a similar circumstance then the vulnerability of sharing this letter will be worthwhile.

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