Kayla Adams, visiting friend of PCV Michael Marano
The whiskey and water haze my vision softly at the edges, making this memory, even in its presence, as beautiful as a dream. I am sitting at the dinner table with my best friend’s host family. I watch as a piece of ash floats gently through the warm night’s air. It is a blackened sugar cane leaf that drifted at least three miles from the blazing field to my distant right. The delicate, scorched leaf teeters through the sky, making its way to my plate, which is still full of spicy som tam, snails, and charcoaled silk worms. The blood moon shines hauntingly in the sky, pregnant and heavy, distracting me from the garbled sounds of words I now recognize, but still, sadly after two weeks, cannot make sense of. I only tune in after hearing my cue: ‘Carrot! Carrot! Are you happy?’ I am asked for the fifth time in the last 20 minutes. I reply, the same as always; smile shining brightly, genuinely with my answer: ‘Yes, Pa, I am happy’.
Michael, my pulsing heartbeat of a best friend, was finishing up his second year of serving in the Peace Corps, in the small town of Si Thep, Petchabun. He made the decision to reenlist for a third year, which gave me time to solidify my decision to visit Thailand and check that box off of my lifetime bucket list. During the planning process I daydreamt of the white sand beaches, buzzing tuuk tuuk’s, and endless pad thai. I never imagined that I would be leaving a piece of my heart in a village whose name I could not properly pronounce, to the point that the bus station issued me the wrong bus ticket, due to my tonally challenged voice inflections.
I made my way to Si Thep on the bus from Bangkok, after spending two weeks of meeting new friends in Chang Mai, kayaking through caves in Krabi, and feeling the blush of romance in Koh Phi Phi.
Warm sweat kept me company on the bus ride (front and center on the second row) fearing that I would miss the small stop that was “not really a bus stop but hopefully the driver understands where you need to go,” Michael calmly reassured me after my third nervous phone call of feeling like I was failing at navigating Thailand on my own.
Thankfully, the bus driver did understand and I was dropped at the spot where Michael waited with his counterpart, Kruu Ja, a beautiful lady with the demeanor of an actual saint. We drove in the dark to his home, all the while Michael proudly pointed out landmarks that I would have seen, if it wasn’t pitch black outside.
I was tired and grimy after a full day’s worth of travel and the only thing keeping me from crawling into bed was the infamous bucket shower. I had been dreading this moment since booking my flight to Thailand, and finally we came face to face. The water, though it took my breath away for a moment, was instantly refreshing. This was just another example of how I continued to find Thailand a magical juxtaposition: beautiful beaches with random putrid smells, enchanted mountain top villages that turn your stomach on the twisting roads travelling to the top, laying under the brilliant night sky while being eaten alive by mosquitoes – teaching you constantly to take the good with the bad.
The next morning I woke up naturally with a buzz vibrating through my veins. I found myself excited and nervous for my ‘first day of school’ sincerely hoping that the students would like me. On our half mile walk to the school we were accompanied by Michael’s dog, Brown, who boldly walked in the center of the street even with tractors sounding their horns in an attempt not to hit him. We passed local markets where Michael was stopped, for what I imagine, are daily hellos. I stood, smiling as Michael explained in Thai who I was, and when I received very confused looks back, I just shook my head, hoping that in their two years spent with Michael they now understood that he will try to pull a prank in any open moment. My inability to speak or understand Thai gave him a plethora of opportunities to express his creativity at my expense.
We finally made our way to the school and were greeted with beaming smiles of students yelling “Teacher! Teacher!” as they hustled over to us. It was obvious that the children were interested but hesitant of me right at first, but as soon as Michael introduced me as his friend, I received immediate hugs around the waist, high five after high five, and tiny hands slipped into mine from the swarm of little ones. In the 100 degree weather, I’ve never felt more appreciative to have so many warm bodies begging for attention. I’ve never felt more honored to be accepted so quickly, to be welcomed so wholly.
A few students followed Michael and me to his classroom, giggling and ducking behind chairs or tables when we turned to catch them. I could see the spark of light on their face when we made eye contact. I urged the sentiment that they were being seen: I traveled all this way and I see you, child. I am foreign, and new, and interesting, and I see you. I see you learning English, I see you working hard to ask me questions, slow and serious: What is your nickname? What is your favorite food? Where do you like to play? I appreciate the effort you are putting forth to get to know me. To connect. Please do not lose this light.
After the day spent at Michael’s school feeling like an actual celebrity, Kruu Ja, offered to drive us home. On our way, she stopped at her house to show us her farm. It is customary for me to make a big deal of things when I know someone is proud to show them off, but seeing Kruu Ja’s land genuinely awed me. She walked us through her fields of palm trees and past her lake. She used a long stick to knock tamarind and rose apples from her trees, beaming at the fact that they are ‘organic’, as we snacked. Kruu Ja sparkled with each treasure she pointed out, “Here are cucumbers, look at these pumpkins, over there are the sugar cane fields, look there are my dog’s litter of puppies” (I die from cuteness). Her eagerness to share her life with me, a literal stranger, and the pride at which she fed and entertained me made my heart swell. In the matter of minutes she transformed from Michael’s counterpart to a friend of mine; an actual friend.
These strong connections kept happening in Si Thep. I’m not sure if that’s just the nature of the people there, or being Michael’s friend gave me an instant “in”, but real life connections sparked up at every corner. It felt like a red thread looping a stitch in my heart and swooping around and looping a stitch in theirs, and then gently tugging us together; stitched together, friends for life.
Stitches were sewn between me and Meh Dtun, whose booming belly laugh made me smile from my cheeks and her loving but stern nature convinced me to eat a few more snails and silk worms than I would have with just any other acquaintance. Meh Carole received me with so much love that we must have known each other in a past life. We leaned into each other like two souls who had been familiar since the beginning of time. Fern’s stitch was sewn as she grabbed my hand giggling and took me to her bedroom to dress me up in her traditional Thai clothing, “so beautiful, so beautiful,” she repeated as she fluffed my hair and introduced me in front of the crowd with a “Ta Da!” Meh and Pa’s stitch made my eyes go misty when they said, in their strongest English, “You are our daughter now,” and in my heart I knew that they meant it.
A warm breeze caresses my neck and blows the ashen, sugar cane leaf off of my plate. I look around at the family dinner scene, Thai music playing in the background, whiskey laughs coming from all around the table, a dog sleeping at my feet, the moon rising but still heavy in the sky, my best friend sitting across from me, new friends embracing me, clinking glasses to celebrate my existence in this beautiful country. “We are so happy you are here, Carrot.” My dear, new friends, you have no idea how happy I am to be here.
Read Michael’s previous articles See You Again on the Next Time, One More Time, Falling in Love in the Peace Corps, River Rise, Not Taking It On, Love, The Mystery of the Tooth in the Sock, and An Island Curse.