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Gulaap: A Lengthy Reflection on my First 4 Months as a Peace Corps Volunteer

Natalie Garro, 129 TCCS

Exactly one week from today – four months ago – I woke up to a typical frigid midwinter’s day in my home state of Colorado and a flight delay that would cause me to miss my connecting flight from Denver to San Francisco. Therefore, I’d also miss my first day of staging for the United States Peace Corps. I called the airline, rearranged my flights, my family drove me straight to Denver, I said the hardest goodbye I’ve ever had to say to my dad and my brother, I boarded the plane, alone, to head off to a country I’d never been to, with a group of people I’d never met, to teach English to children who spoke a language I’d never heard. Looking back, it all seems much more gargantuan a life-decision than it did back then.

Today, nearly four full months into my Peace Corps service, and one month into living at my permanent site in Nakhon Sawan, Thailand – that first step into the unknown seems like a lifetime ago. The pre-departure butterflies were more like angry locusts swarming in my stomach. A big part of me was convinced something horrible was going to happen, and – honestly – I never really believed I was going to make it here until I walked off that plane into my first wave of Thailand humidity; I remember sweating from places I didn’t know I could sweat from… like my kneecaps… MY KNEECAPS, seriously.

I have traveled before, I have traveled alone before, and I was prepared for the sights and the smells and the strange food. I was excited to experience the foreign, to learn a new language, to undertake the daunting task of adapting to a new culture. I suppose, in a lot of ways, I was well-prepared for this journey. I was mentally prepared, I packed reasonably well, I said all of the goodbyes I needed to say… even the hard ones; I was ready.

My goal for this piece was to write about what I would tell myself four months ago, just before I boarded that plane, with the hope of providing some insight for any future PCVs who might stumble across this article. However, today I was talking with my fellow PC Thailand Volunteer, Christina, and we agreed that no matter what we read, no matter what anyone told us, no matter how “prepared” we tried to be, nothing can or will ever prepare a future PCV for the journey they undertake as a Peace Corps Trainee, and then as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

I suppose, then, what I would tell myself is this:

Yes, it is okay to be the obnoxious student who repeats words over and over until you say them properly, even when some of your fellow trainees roll their eyes or laugh at you, because correct pronunciation can make the difference between calling someone a “dog” or a “doctor,” and there’s nothing more rewarding than the first time a Thai native compliments your accent.

You will become accustomed to the heat. In fact, you will ask your dad to send you three pairs of jeans you left behind because kon Thai (Thai people) wear jeans all the time, and YOU WILL WEAR THEM WHEN HE SENDS THEM TO YOU – even in 104°F heat with 40% humidity. (Being from Colorado, this is an accomplishment.)

You will spend nearly EVERY SINGLE DAY of your first 3 months of service training with a giant group of farangs (foreigners) who are your fellow Peace Corps trainees. You will stumble through Thai etiquette, tong sia (Google it), small victories (like ordering coffee in Thai for the first time), and maybe one Lao Khao mishap (sorry Kun Howard) together. You will laugh together, cry together, get on each other’s nerves, and – ultimately – become the family and support network that is crucial to the success of every Peace Corps Volunteer. They are the people you will go to with the horror stories you cannot tell the folks back home. They are the people who will understand the bone-deep loneliness of being the only farang for miles when all you want is an English conversation; or even just a cheeseburger.

You will have crisis moments. The first night of your home stay during PST in Singburi, you will share a bed with your two younger host sisters. You will lie there with silent tears streaming down your face thinking, “Oh god, what have I done?” There will be extremely awkward moments… like the one time you clogged the toilet due to your excessive intake of Thai food, but the toilet doesn’t flush, the bucket pour isn’t working, your host Daa (grandfather) is visiting for the first time, you’re supposed to be leaving for a trip with your host family, you don’t even know where you’re going, you don’t speak Thai yet, and oh dear Lord Buddha, KILL ME NOW. And you will survive.

You will scrub your host family’s bathroom for an hour and a half, and it won’t look any cleaner. Yet, you will feel infinitely better knowing it’s been sanitized. You will learn to love your bucket shower. You will laugh with your family. You will learn about each other, even though you can’t speak together. And when you tie the bracelet around your host mom’s wrist to say goodbye, she will cry, and so will you, and it will be just as painful as saying goodbye to your dad and your brother in the Denver airport 3 months ago.

You will learn to say goodbye. You will learn that, yes, your heart can, in fact, expand enough to hold an entire community of people who were strangers 3 months ago.

When you arrive at your permanent site, you will miss Singburi. You will miss your first Thai family. You will compare, though you will keep reminding yourself not to. You will struggle as you realize, your Thai isn’t as proficient as you thought it was. You will adapt to new dialects – possibly new languages – spoken in your village. You will be “the farang” all over again. You will lose your name. They will give you a new one – Gulaap – meaning “Rose” in English.

Every day you will worry that you aren’t doing enough, that you do not have enough to offer these people, but you will keep trying. You will learn the names of the old couple who own your favorite restaurant down the street, learn that they have lived here for 47 years.

By now, you are already accustomed to eating around the ants in the sugar, picking beetles out of the rice… maybe even eating bugs on purpose. You know how to wash yourself with a “bum gun” and not complain when there’s no toilet paper. You don’t fuss when there’s a rat running around the bathroom, you just pee fast and go back to bed. Sweating is now a normal part of existing, and you only occasionally daydream about pancakes – nothing a quick weekend getaway to Bangkok can’t cure.

You will not get used to the care the Thai people give you. You will never learn how to properly say Thank You every time someone brings you watermelon, mangos, bananas, postcards for your family, when your host sister does your laundry, or your host brother drives you 30 minutes away so you can spend the morning with another volunteer. But you will try.

You will be amazed at how your habits rub off on those around you, such as when your community starts running with you in the evenings and the simple English words they learn by listening to you speak. You will start to form a routine. You will be the one bringing people fruit. You will miss English less and less. After about one month at site, you will realize you’re finally understanding people when they speak Thai.

The steps are small. If you don’t pay attention, you will miss them. Like the moment when your new host mom finally stops referring to you as, “the farang.”

Some steps are big, like when you start finalizing your rental house and your host mom asks you not to move out (although you will, because you’re currently sleeping in your host sister’s bedroom, and your entire host family is currently sleeping in the same bedroom because of it).

And, somehow, through all of this, you have managed to become an entirely new person, yet stay the same. You speak a new language. You know how to eat with a spoon and fork. You eat hot noodle soup in 100°F heat. You know how to take the song tao and the bus from your site to Bangkok, a 6-hour journey, on your own. But there are still days speaking Thai is impossible. There are days you don’t want to leave your room from the exhaustion of always trying to be present or just because you’re still a spectacle, and you just want to go a whole day without being stared at or talked about like you aren’t there.

You can’t put your finger on your own mental and emotional growth, but you feel it. And every day, you change. On the day your host mom wakes you up at 8 AM (after you were up writing until 3 AM) and tells you to get up to ride your bike (6 miles up a mountain pass) to the nearest 7-11, you do, and she takes you to a local swimming hole. Or someone asks you to teach them English, and you spend 2 hours just talking and eating at a restaurant on the river. And you have learned that sometimes the most pain-in-the-ass moments become the best memories.

There is so much.

So much that has happened, and I haven’t written about it or processed it, and here it is: flowing from my fingers for 45 minutes now.

I have cried several times since coming here. There have been moments I have wondered how I tricked the recruiters into thinking I’m qualified to do this. There have been moments I’ve felt alone, moments I have felt like none of the other volunteers liked me, like I say all the wrong things, like I keep screwing up. But I have also stopped and wondered how I ever lived my life without knowing these people, both American and Thai, and every time going home has even crossed my mind, I’ve realized how badly I truly want to be here.

We are four months in, and this is a lot. This whole experience is a lot, there’s no doubt about it.

There is no way to prepare for this. What I have written above could in no way reflect the experience of any other volunteer – and that’s the beauty of all of this. They tell us over and over every experience is unique. I live on a farm. There are volunteers who live in cities. There are volunteers who live with Hill Tribes. There are volunteers who live on the beach. We come from different backgrounds, experiences, areas of technical expertise, and we all have different goals.

What bonds us is our diversity. Our shared passion for adventure. Our willingness to step forward into the unknown. Our willingness to admit that we don’t have all the answers, to accept our failures as opportunities for growth.

We are the men, women, and everything in between serving in the United States Peace Corps here in Thailand. We thrive. Some days we just survive. The road ahead is going to be difficult, I’m sure. But today has been a good day, and, as a former (and much wiser) PCV once said:

“Can I do this for two years? I don’t know. But I can do it for one more day.”

Cheers from me, four months into my service, to you. To the Self I was before I began this journey. To the Self you are if you are about to begin, if your are here with me, if you have completed your service, if this is a journey you will never take. Thank you for listening.


 

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