Neil Pickus, 131 YinD
July 2019 was perhaps the most transient and fleeting month of my life so far. I was in and out (mostly out) of my “regular” life at site, only spending eight nights total in my bed as I made my way to Reconnect Conference, Warden Training, and my first VAC (Volunteer Advocacy Committee) meeting of my service. When I finally got home and started to piece together my routine again something major uprooted what I thought I knew of as my “regular” life at site.
While washing my clothes after work one day, there was a loud knock on my front door. I found this extremely jarring as it was the first time I heard anyone knock on my door. I opened it to find two colleagues from the municipality office had stopped by to deliver a package of multi-vitamins and bug spray from PCMO (Peace Corps medical officer) when they asked what I was doing. “Washing my clothes, and you?” I responded. They replied “Going to watch the boat,” which went right over my head as I thought perhaps this is a normal thing for people to do when they live as close to the sea as we do. I wai’d them goodbye and went on with my chores.
A short time later, while biking to my host family’s house to eat rice, it finally clicked what they meant by “watching the boat.” Next month, my community is hosting a nation-wide long boat canoe race, and for the past few weeks (unbeknownst to me because I had been away so much), there had been practice for the team every day in the canal I cross on my way to my host family’s house. I decided to stop by and say hello to whomever else was watching the practice. To my surprise, the mayor was the first person I interacted with and the very first thing he asked was “Are you going, too?” Meaning, “Are you going to paddle the boat with the team today?” I hesitated as I already had plans to eat rice with my host family but committed to coming back the next day to paddle with the team.
The next day, I made my way to the canal and sort of just stood around waiting for instructions on what to do next. I had no paddle and no understanding of where to sit in the boat or what to do once I was in place. I’ve canoed and kayaked before; in fact, I used to teach canoeing at summer camp, but this boat was unlike any boat I’ve ever seen. Made from a single, hollowed-out tree about twenty meters long, this boat seats about thirty-five people.
Practice began first with everyone lamenting over the foreigner who had joined their ranks. I couldn’t decipher if they thought I was going to be a helpful addition or simply dead weight that would need to be carried throughout practice. Next, the captain was giving me some helpful tips for how to keep pace, how to paddle most efficiently, when to breathe, when to lean forward and back, when to reset the paddle in the water, and the cues for how many times to stroke based on how many times he slammed the boat with the butt end of his oar. I, of course, only understood a fraction of what he said in a thick Southern Thai dialect. Was I supposed to bend my right arm or not? Pull the paddle through the water until my knee or my waist? Breathe every stroke or every other stroke?
What I surmised throughout the course of the practice was that the power for rowing the boat comes not from the arms pulling the paddle through the water, but rather from the core of the body as the thirty-five or so rowers thrust their bodies forward into and back out of the strokes like a choreographed rhythmic dance. The boat is propelled almost as much through the paddle passing through the water as it is through the rhythmic forward and back, forward and back, much like how a child propels themselves higher and higher on a swing set.
“The rhythm will propel us to victory!” exclaimed the team captain as we were nearing the fifty-minute mark on this particular training session. “Count together, lean forward and back together, keep your back straight, faster, faster, faster!” He yelled over the counting and grunting coming from the rowers as the boat sped along the canal.
After practice, back at my apartment while reflecting on my first practice as a member of the local “crew team,” I realized paddling this boat was an incredibly accurate and simple metaphor for how I am going to survive the next year and a half of service in my community. I won’t survive paddling the boat that is Peace Corps service alone nor will I survive with all the power coming from my arms. I need to feel the rhythm of the community and produce the power from my core and the cores of those who work with me. I need to be in rhythm with the people here; I cannot continuously miss full months at site at a time and expect to accomplish the goals at hand. I have to be present at practice, consistently, in order to internalize the rhythm and feel of the boat speeding along the canal. Peace Corps volunteers have to show up and put in the effort to be present. The captain of the boat yelling commands and encouragement can be equated to some combination of the Peace Corps staff and various committees pushing us towards the deadlines for applications, reporting, and projects. The captain keeps the rowers accountable for the boat’s movement and speed just like the Peace Corps community keeps volunteers accountable for the work they have been tasked with doing. Leaning forward with all my might into projects and leaning back to reflect on the work we’ve accomplished will help to make this service meaningful and impactful.