Theresa Kozelka, 129 YinD
One of the most defining aspects of being a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand is our unique choice of transportation. Unlike 95% of the Thai population, which can be found driving a motorcycle at any given moment, you can find your neighborhood Peace Corps Volunteer pedaling along their community roads perched atop their Peace Corps issued bicycle, with their name written in XL font along the body of their bicycle — reminiscent of my Kindergarten backpack labeled by my mother — and a helmet strapped to their head. As I glide pass student’s houses, schools and local shops, my students, friends and co-workers whiz by on their motorcycles, shouting “Hello Teacher!”
While bike rides through the mountains, rice fields, or varying landscapes of rural Thailand can be therapeutic, challenging and overall enjoyable, I would be remiss to exclude our reasoning for choosing to bike rather than to hop on the back of our friends’ motorcycles. Peace Corps explicitly forbids volunteers from driving any sort of motorized vehicle. Though volunteers can ride along in a car, truck or van, Peace Corps enforces a zero tolerance policy for volunteers caught riding on the back of a motorcycle. This rule can feel very restricting. Often times I find myself turning down invitations to community events, dinner at friends houses or weekend trips, because the only form of transportation is a motorcycle. However, in my experience, this rule has also led to some of my most unexpected and cherished friendships.
As a Youth in Development Volunteer, I am required to spend a portion of my time at the local government office. While my co-workers warmly welcomed me into their office community, I found it far easier to be myself with my co-teachers, surrounded by children and the chaos of daily life at school. However, there were two people at my office, who became fast friends. One might assume these two people were my Peace Corps assigned work partners; however, these two men were actually the Office Driver and the head of the Civil Engineering Department, and they also had the “good fortune” of being assigned to drive me to my farthest schools every Tuesday and Wednesday. During the 20 minute drive to school we would chat about the weather, weekend plans, family or whatever came to mind. In the comfort of that small truck, I had the space to test out my rocky Thai and a very forgiving audience. Some days we would talk the entire 20 minutes, other days we simply acknowledged one another’s presence as we switched back and forth between Thai and English radio stations. During those 20 minutes I didn’t have to impress anyone, conform or resist to anyone’s opinion of an American. I had the time and space to get to know another person and to be myself. Looking back on many hours logged in the office truck, I thank my lucky stars Peace Corps forbade me from hopping on my co-teacher’s motorcycle.
As I was reminiscing about the past two years, I found that my unique transportation circumstances led to another indispensable friendship. Every night anywhere from 3-15 people can be found on Tha Silah School’s concrete volleyball court playing under the lights until well past dark. Initially, I would rush to my bicycle hoping to complete the 6 km bike ride home before darkness set, despite my new friends protests that someone could find me a ride home. However, the more time I spent with these people the later I wanted to stay. Until one day, as I mounted my bicycle to return home, I noticed that the stars had quickly replaced the setting sun. Though I insisted I could bike home by myself, my friends adamantly protested. Finally, I gave in and agreed to have a friend take me home. As I hopped on my seat, my friend mounted his motorcycle, flipped on his lights and drove the entire 6 kilometers alongside my bicycle lighting my way as I pedaled home.
I honestly cannot remember what we talked about that first night; all I know is that I laughed a lot, at the conversation, at the situation, at my luck in finding someone willing to drive his motorcycle 15 km/hr as we inched home through the winding rubber trees under the stars. That first ride home turned into the first of many and what used to be a somewhat long, tiring ride home has turned into one of my favorite parts of the day.
Sometimes I imagine myself in the reverse situation, as the Thai person intercepting a bumbling foreigner who speaks in random flourishes and insists on riding a bicycle everywhere, and I marvel at the amount of patience that I have been shown over the past two years. Though I am not sure I can ever truly repay these people for their time spent carting me around, I will forever be grateful for them, my trusty bicycle and begrudgingly Peace Corps’ unwavering law.