Imagine a wild, crazy, belly-hurting rollercoaster ride. The kind of rollercoaster you wish came with a barf bag and some post-ride ginger ale. It has loops, sharp turns, slow climbs and huge drops. The rollercoaster you are envisioning is the best way I can think to describe my first six weeks as a Peace Corps Volunteer. It should also be noted that, due to motion sickness, I’m really not a fan of rollercoasters. And they don’t make Dramamine for the rollercoaster of life.
Upon arrival at site, I was welcomed with open arms (well, not really, because Thai people don’t often hug) by everyone at the Tessaban, which is the town hall I work from. People were impressed that I was able to speak Thai, even the very little I manage to choke out, and were even more excited about meeting the “Farang”, the Thai word for “foreigner”.
I spent the first couple days in the office meeting and introducing myself to multitudes of people, all in broken “Thai-glish”. I’ve got my Thai elevator speech down to a science, which, as is completely normal in Thai culture, includes the fact that I like to eat Thai food but can’t eat spicy food.
Within four days of getting to site, I was whisked away on a four-day school field trip to the province of Chonburi, which is located along the Gulf of Thailand, east of Bangkok. I was originally invited on the “beach trip” and told we were staying at a “beach hotel”. Oh, how wrong I was when I envisioned a beach high-rise with plush double rooms. Instead, we pulled up and unpacked at what I think was a Thai naval training base. I say “what I think” because, as with most things that’ve happened in the last six weeks, I don’t quite know exactly what it was.
The females – students, teachers, and children of the teachers – all shared one room, which was outfitted with “bedding” for everyone. I’ve practiced yoga on mats with more cushion and I was ever thankful for the inflatable pillow I brought with me on the trip. I won’t even begin to describe the bathroom situation because without fully experiencing their smell, a description would do no justice.
Evidently, said military training center was indeed on the beach, so we spent a couple of afternoons in the water. Our mornings were filled with educational sightseeing, which included trips to an aquarium, a zoo, a sea turtle conservatory, and a Thai Navy ship. Being the token white person in the group, I was not allowed to tour the active naval ship, so instead spent a bit of alone time in a nearby ice cream shop. On our way back north, we stopped for a couple of hours of fun at Dream World, an amusement park in Bangkok. Before getting caught in the afternoon’s hurricane-like storm, I enjoyed a couple of attractions with some of the younger teachers on the trip. For the record, I walked through my first haunted house (eyes mostly closed), an experience I really will do just fine without ever doing again.
After returning from the field trip I moved into my host family’s house, which has been one of my best experiences since coming to Thailand. My new host family is incredibly patient with our ever-present language barrier and is very respectful of my space, feelings, and independence. My host dad works in the Division of Engineering at the Tessaban and my host mom is a public health nurse at the local health clinic. I have two host sisters – Prince (12) and Ping (9) – who make me laugh daily. My host mom’s parents live at our house, too, but pretty much keep to themselves. They’re very nice and are helpful when I need assistance, but we don’t talk too often.
Initially, everything was exciting and new and wonderful, just as things were when our group first arrived in Thailand. But, just as they did in January, those feelings fade and are replaced by feelings of frustration, confusion, and insecurity.
Back to my rollercoaster analogy: My rollercoaster’s loops are experiences when I think I know what’s going on, what’s being said, or what’s about to happen and am instead thrown for a complete “loop” with something entirely different. There’s times where I think we’re headed one place and instead we head in the opposite direction. Like the time I thought we were going to my counterpart’s house and instead we went to a funeral. Or the time I thought we were going to a funeral and we ended up at the Chiang Rai Night Bazaar. The reassuring fact is that, despite the inevitable loops, there is usually food involved, as seems to be the absolute norm here.
The rollercoaster’s sharp turns where your limbs feel like they’re about to disconnect from your body are the times when I feel like I’m being pulled in different directions, both figuratively and literally. I’m constantly pulled unknowingly into situations which test my comfort zone, push my personal boundaries, and challenge my personal abilities. “Carly! Dance!” they say as the whole room breaks into a synchronized Thai dance that I know no part of. Sure enough, I dance my own made-up routine, they laugh, and pictures are, of course, taken. And then there’s the being literally pulled, pushed and guided around (usually by my waist or hips) for countless introductions, presentations, greetings, and photo ops. Oh, the photo ops!
The last six weeks have brought ups and downs beyond what I believed to even be imaginable. Just like on a rollercoaster, the ups are achieved in gradual climbs, but once reached, they offer some of the best views and perspective. Celebrating Songkran, Thailand’s new year and the world’s biggest water fight, with my host sisters was one of my highest highs. Traveling to Chiang Mai for the northern region’s consolidation drill was another up, as the three-day visit brought ample time for relaxation in our hotel’s swimming pool, delicious American and Mexican food, and time with friends.
My rollercoaster ride has had small climbs, too. When I finally remember someone’s name or can recognize and repeat a new phrase in Thai, I’m reminded that I am indeed absorbing things along this crazy ride. After having a successful dinner conversation in Thai-glish with my host family, I beam with pride and feel hopeful that I may someday feel like a true part of their family. And then there’s the random days when I find myself enjoying a really good latte; those certainly count as high points, too!
The rollercoaster ride’s drops are sudden, unexpected, and terrifying. My first bought of serious sickness – an intestinal infection which resulted in a hospital visit – was a definite low. (Thank goodness for Mama KJ and her wise words of medical wisdom from afar!) Other dips and drops are often associated with loneliness, confusion, and frustration. I have more time with myself than I know what to do with, which results in ample time to think about things over and over again. I’ve found the cycle to be both therapeutic and toxic; the toxic thoughts often going hand-in-hand with sudden drops. I’m constantly confused by my surroundings and often grow frustrated with my language abilities and level of cultural understanding.
Although my rollercoaster continues to loop, turn, climb, and drop, I have not yet found myself reaching for the emergency escape button. I’m committed to riding this rollercoaster ride, despite the numbing motion sickness, which are tears and homesickness in real life. Yes, absolutely, the downs have left me with a finger on the button, but ups are what keep me going and constantly remind me why I got in line for this crazy ride in the first place.