Megan Cindric, 129 YinD
My backpack sat untouched in the corner of my room for months. I was in denial about it all, thinking that the end of my service would forever be a tiny speck in the distance. When you’re in the middle of Peace Corps, time feels like it stretches infinitely in either direction. You can get lost in the middle as days blur into weeks and months until suddenly you realize you can count on one hand the number of times you’ll visit each of your schools, the number of trips to your market you have left, and how many sunrises and sunsets you have left in this country. Infinity compresses impossibly fast, and suddenly you’re left scrambling trying to make sense of it all and finding a balance between preparing to leave and enjoying the end of your time here. Suddenly everything you do is permeated with emotion, and you find yourself tearing up over the smallest things – even something as routine and familiar as your daily bike ride or a trip to the market. It’s the bittersweet realization of how far we’ve come over these past two years, and just how much we’re leaving behind when we finally depart.
When I came to Thailand, there was a nervous excitement surrounding everything I did. I think of my 80 liter backpack, stuffed to the brim with so many things that wound up being useless once I got here – bulk containers of face wash and shampoo, clothes that weren’t quite proper enough for the workplace, even things like my favorite coffee mug and pillow. When I packed to leave for Thailand, these things felt like they carried so much more significance, that somehow bringing them with me would bring along a piece of the world I was leaving behind in America. I look back at my old self and can’t help but smile. Packing to come to Thailand felt like a contest to fit as much of myself into my suitcase as possible. Now that I’m packing for the return journey, this challenge seems insurmountable, and I know there’s no way I can fit all of my feelings, relationships and experiences into a single piece of luggage.
People tell me to pack light, to not weigh myself down with excess clothes and knick knacks, but how can I, when everything I own here is so deeply embedded with stories, memories and connections? Even small things like a scarf or statue carries with it so much emotional weight, the strings of connections becoming increasingly knotted until I’m certain I can’t leave anything behind without feeling at least a hint of remorse. How can I even begin to sort through the tangled mess of my life here, to pick and choose which objects, and by extension which memories, are worth bringing back? I feel like I’m scrambling against time to retain as much of this experience as I can, but deep down I know that this is unavoidable, and that despite my best efforts certain parts of this experience will fade over time. It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that, despite my best efforts, I cannot bring this entire experience with me, and over time certain memories will fade into the background of my life. I know that no amount of souvenirs, pictures, or writing will ever capture this experience the way I want it to, as much as I wish I could keep it all perfectly preserved in this moment, pressed like flowers between the pages of a book, kept safe and untouched by the passage of time. Part of leaving involves accepting that some of these experience will not translate back home, that there are not enough words in the English language to detail every minute aspect of life here, and that even if pieces fade over time, it does not diminish the significance of this experience.
I’ve found myself just sitting much more often lately, not focusing on anything in particular. I open my eyes and ears to the world around me and try to absorb as much as I can while I’m still here. My life here is not one isolated instance, and no matter how hard I try I know I will never be able to fit the real important parts into my suitcase – my yai’s smile, the way the humidity feels on my skin, the feeling of connection I have with Kim, my 5 year old neighbor, even if we hardly ever understand each other. Somewhere deep down I know the memories aren’t contained in the objects, and even if my thoughts betray me down the road, that in no way invalidates my experience here. If that’s the case, maybe this is the best way to spend my last days here: just sitting and taking in the beauty of this place I’ve come to call my home, instead of anxiously fighting to preserve that which can never adequately be captured. Sitting and contemplating has given me a chance to reflect on why leaving this place feels downright impossible most days.
Joining Peace Corps was the hardest thing I’d ever done … until I had to leave. I’ve moved multiple times before, but it never felt like this. I never felt like so much of my world and identity was about to be uprooted. Even when I came here, I knew it was only a two-year timeframe, and I was in close contact with so many parts of my world back home. Now my one-way ticket home serves as a reminder that I really don’t know the next time I’ll be back in my village. A year? 10 years? Not knowing when I’ll see my friends and family here weighs on me every day, and I still don’t have a satisfying answer when my neighbors ask me, “when are you coming back?” Even with things like Facetime and Skype, there still isn’t an easy way to keep in contact with so many people here in Thailand. My relationships with them aren’t rooted in long-winded conversations, but instead in spending time together and seeking to understand one another even across language and cultural barriers. That’s something no video call will ever be able to replicate, and I feel more and more distressed when I realize how long it will be before I’m able to do something as simple as share a meal with my yai again.
I know this is an experience I will never return to – I’ll never again live in this village, bike these same roads, or call this place my home the same way I did over my service. So much will change by the time I return, and I can’t help but wonder how much will have changed the next time I find myself out here on the fringes of Thailand. Life doesn’t stop for anyone, as much as I wish it would stay frozen in this moment forever. Change is the only constant, and deep down I know moving forward will give way to even more beautiful stories and lives. Children will grow up, neighbors will get married, new volunteers will come and go, and life in Nakhon Phanom will go on whether I’m here or not. For now I just sit and take it all in and know that change does not negate my experience, and though my time here was unexpected and perfectly imperfect, it was downright beautiful, and that’s something I’ll bring with me no matter where I go from here.