Peaks & Valleys, Vol. 3 feat. Caitlin Elder

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Rae Richards, 129 TCCS

Welcome to a new column meant to explore the highs and lows of Peace Corps volunteer life—in Thailand and beyond! Each month, we will highlight a current Peace Corps volunteer somewhere in the world and interview them about the best and most difficult experiences that they have had in the last month. Through storytelling, we can gleam at how different and similar life is between volunteers across provinces and borders—enjoy!

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Volunteer name: Caitlin Elder
Project: TCCS
Group: 128
Site: Sukhothai, Thailand
Interview date: September 24th, 2017
Interviewed by: Rae Richards

Rae: Hey Caitlin, thank you for letting me interview you! I’m going to jump in with my first question– it’s a little cheesy so bear with me. If you were an animal, what animal would you be and why?

Caitlin: Oh man. I’m thinking of two animals. Probably a cat for number one because their lives are bomb. Like an indoor house cat. They’re so lazy and well taken care of. And they’re adorable.

Rae: They have it too easy. [Laughter]

Caitlin: And for the second, I’d pick a flamingo. I don’t know if you know this but they’re actually born white and it’s the shrimp that they eat that turns them pink.

Rae: I did not know that—wow, that’s fascinating! Animals are too cool. Okay so the silly getting-to-know-you question is done—cat or flamingo, check—so my next question is could you please describe the best/happiest moment you’ve had in Thailand in the last month?

Caitlin: So the highest-high within the work setting would be the final project for my 3rd and 4th graders, we got to use the vocabulary we had been learning to make stories. We all sat in a circle and read the stories aloud—it was just adorable. They had these pictures they had drawn and they were reading aloud. So adorable.

Rae: I love stories like this. It’s such a proud feeling as the teacher in these moments to see how they’ve taken ownership over their learning.

Caitlin. Yes. And we had some crazy words. So like the sentences were “I see a [NOUN]” or “The [NOUN] is [ADJECTIVE]” or “The [NOUN] can [VERB]”. So we had punching whales eating watermelon or whales chopping watermelon because they just inserted words into the blanks. It was adorable.

Rae: That’s fantastic. Do you have a crafty way to catalog these successes? Do you journal or take a lot of photos—how do you remember the good moments?

Caitlin: I take a lot of pictures and I take a lot of videos.

Rae: I need to take more videos, that’s so smart. Okay, my next question is also regarding a high-high moment—what’s the best meal you’ve had in the last week?

Caitlin: The meal we had last night was great. One of the women in town—I consider her my friend—she has been dying to make spaghetti. So I went over and we made spaghetti and we sat around and all these women came over—like 8 of them—to eat some pasta. They were so excited about it. And I had baked some rolls and made a pineapple crumble type thing. So we just sat around and drank Lao Khao and listened to music and yeah—it was a lot of fun. It wasn’t the best tasting meal but it was the best atmosphere.

Rae: Sounds like the ideal environment and people. Sharing food is such a deep thing—I think of the phrase ‘breaking bread’ often and it’s really such an intimate thing to share with people. Beautiful.

Caitlin: Definitely.

Rae: So changing gears quite a bit now, I’m curious to hear about the most difficult moment you’ve experienced in the last month. You can answer with whatever level of honesty you’d like—the floor is yours.

Caitlin: Yeah, so a little backstory first. My village is about 300 houses. The nearest 7/11, ATM or anything is about 30km away. But there is a bus that goes Mondays through Thursdays at 6AM. This is just to give you a sense of how isolated I am.

Rae: Wow yeah, you’re out there.

Caitlin: Yeah. So when I moved to my house last May, I got two sister kittens from one of my students’ cats. So about a month ago, I took them to get spayed. This was a huge ordeal—we took the bus and I had to schedule an appointment with the vet in Thai. A lot of work. So finally I got them spayed and they are on their meds. So then I woke up one Sunday to go to the bathroom—it was maybe 4 AM—and one of my cats, Pan, was meowing and she was kind of hiding. So I went to go see what was wrong with her and found out that she was paralyzed from the waist down. So at this point I’m like freaking out. It’s 4 AM so I can’t do anything so I clean her up and put her on a blanket and I’m just freaking out. My mom’s out of town so I can’t get a hold of her. I’m all alone.  Finally it rolls around to 6AM and I biked to an older woman in the village that I know and ask her, “Are you going into town today?” And she says yes and I ask, “Well can I go with you? There’s something wrong with my cat. I need to take her to the vet.” She says yes that’s fine, they are going at 11. So I go back home. And I’m of course like Googling it, trying to figure out what’s wrong. I don’t have anyone I can talk to. The cat is not eating. She looks like she is trying to poop out her intestines. Horrific. So we finally go to the vet and the vet gives her a shot. The vet then says she will be fine by tomorrow. I’m convinced that she will not be fine by tomorrow. But I take her home and at about 4PM she starts having seizures. And again, I’m alone this whole time. Doing this on my own. My best friend in Thailand is busy at a camp. My mom is out of town for the weekend. So 4PM and my cat starts having seizures. At first, it was like one and then an hour later, another, then thirty minutes, another. And then after that just straight seizures. And I know it’s getting towards the end and so I take her outside. At this point, the monks are chanting. And then she dies in my arms. And it was really really hard because I didn’t have anyone to talk to and I didn’t really know what was going on.

Rae: [speechless]

Caitlin: Yeah. After she passed, I took her inside so her sister could see her. It’s important that they understand what happens. So then I go around asking people if anyone has a shovel. And people ask what’s going on and I’m just like “My cat died” and I’m just like a bawling mess.

Rae: Understandably so.

Caitlin: Yeah so they are trying to find a shovel. And this woman that I’d been talking to comes over with like this front-loading construction machine. And we just dig this huge hole in the ground—like 6 feet. No one really knew what was going on, which was interesting, because I’m pretty sure you just toss out your cat when it dies in Thailand. I don’t know what people do, but they definitely don’t bury them. And it’s the first time they’ve seen me cry and I’ve been crying all day so my eyes are red and huge. So we bury her together. And two of my students who are my neighbors come over and help me plant some flowers. And we make a heart shape out of the rocks. And so while it was really traumatic that day, it was nice to see that I needed help—just a shovel—and they brought over this massive machine and helped me dig and plant the flowers. And like no one really understood what was going on but they knew I needed something. It was really sweet that they were so helpful dealing with something they’ve never actually done.

Rae: Wow. Thank you for sharing that story. That’s so traumatic to have dealt with alone like that.

Caitlin: Yeah, it’s been a month or so, so I’m a lot better now. But my mom’s actually dating a vet so when I finally got a hold of her, I asked her to ask him what may have happened. So we think it’s this thing called saddle thrombos and it’s when a blood clot gets stuck in their vein and then breaks off the flow to their back legs. It’s super rare but it happens. And even if I was in America, there would have been nothing we could do for her—they would have just put her asleep. So I’m still sad but I’m glad it wasn’t something preventable. She didn’t eat something that killed her.

Rae: Yeah, there’s comfort in that. I wonder what the vet gave her?

Caitlin: I think he just gave her some antibiotics and some pain medicine.

Rae: Gotcha. How’s the sister kitty?

Caitlin: It was really hard for like a week afterward. She just walked around a meowed sadly. And I was super emotional when she would do that. But she’s a lot better now. She used to be very aloof but now she is very loving so, yeah.

Rae: Good to hear. What self-care do you practice when you’re going through something so hard?

Caitlin: Well thankfully I’ve only had one really hard time like that. And to deal with it, I listened to music and cried on my bed.

Rae: That’s my go-to! [Laughter]

Caitlin: And the day after it happened I went to school and we watched movies and hung out. Lots of Disney movies. It was what I needed.

Rae: Yeah—I find that my students help me so much more than I think I could ever let them know. They’re the best. We’re going to switch gears again because now I want to know if you have a favorite quote or bit of life advice you wouldn’t mind sharing?

Caitlin: So I have a song lyric. There’s this children’s song “Through the Woods” by the Okee Dokee Brothers. And one of my favorite lines in that is “and I wonder if you’ll wander with me”. I go back to that a lot.

Rae: That’s cute, I’ll have to look them up.

Caitlin: They’re like this bluegrass band and they just sing all of these really cute songs.

Rae: I love bluegrass, I’m on it. Speaking of music, what’s your current binge list—books, music, podcasts, etc.?

Caitlin: I’ve been really into podcasts lately. S-Town was really good… Serial, too… currently doing Radio Hour, Hidden Brain and Criminal and every week I always listen to NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me! which is nice because I listened to that back in the states, too. Rough Translation is a new one I really like—they take news stories from America that are playing in other countries so you get a fuller perspective on things happening in America. Oh and I’ve been sewing and cross-stitching a lot, too.

Rae: Oh yeah I almost forgot you’re really crafty with sewing! What kinds of things do you make at site?

Caitlin: I make these reusable vegetable bags for myself and others. I’ve altered some clothing. I made a huge cross stitch for my mom, which took up a lot of my time.

Rae: I love this—so awesome. Do you have a way people can keep up with your Peace Corps adventures online?

Caitlin: I’m on Instagram @mtflamingo.

Rae: Well Caitlin, thank you so much for making the time for me. I had a great time talking to you!

Thank you for reading episode 3 of Peaks & Valleys. Tune in next month for another conversation about the sweet and the sour of Peace Corps life!

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