Articles

Whiplash

Caitlin Navratil, 131 YinD

I remember standing in my Minnesotan kitchen and thinking about my next two years, dreading the solitude. I remember worrying how I would be able to survive for so long on my own – my family and friends a world away.

Some days, that fear creeps back into my mind. Some evenings, it’s my third night in a row watching Netflix in my house all by myself, and it occurs to me that I will not last two years if this is my every evening. But, mercifully, those nights are few and far between.

Instead, I’ve been dealing with relational whiplash I hadn’t expected. It feels like I’m saying hello and goodbye so often that I’ve left parts of my heart all over this country. Sure, that sounds dramatic, but let me tell you about October.

First it’s, “Hello again, fellow PCVs.” I spent the first two weeks of October at Peace Corps trainings: first, a language training, and then, PDM (Project Design and Management) training. It was a hello again to a small group of PCVs – people to whom I’d said goodbye to as recently as the end of Reconnect training back in July. I guess in the grand scheme of things, July to October is still quite the length of time to be away from someone.

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Long, productive days and late, Chang-accompanied social nights pass, and it’s goodbye again. Goodbye until next time – when will that be? Mid-Service Conference, next May? It’s weird to have such casual goodbyes with an indeterminate amount of time to when I’ll see them again. I take solace in knowing that no matter how long passes, next time will be, “hello again,” all over again.

Next, it’s, “long time, no see,” to my Don Chedi host family. A weird deja-vu comes over me as the van drives down a familiar street to drop me off in front of the 7/11 I used to frequent. I have visions of laughing, sweaty PCVs gathered around a table at lunch. Then, come flashbacks of listening to Michelle Obama’s audio book while my thighs burn on sweaty bike rides. I feel the residual exhaustion that was pre-service training.

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But then, I see my host Mom – and all that seems unimportant. Her hair is shorter, and somehow blonder, but I feel a familiar warmth flood my chest. Later, I learned that a day I assumed was bpit term (school break) was actually their last day of school. So, she had left her school in the middle of the day to come pick me up from town. I felt silly and mad at myself for not making sure she was free to come pick me up, but she never flinched. Nothing has changed, they’re so good to me.

And then it’s time to leave again, I’m irked at how quickly three days can pass when you’re trying to savor every moment. I squeeze my yai’s (grandma’s) hands and my eyes fill with tears – exactly like last time. I feel the deja-vu hit me all over again, but I know that I will inevitably be sad about this goodbye every time it happens. Another “When will I see you again?” situation – knowing it will come so fast and be way too long at the same time. They wait with me until my van comes, and then, send me off with a wave. My host mom asks me to send pictures and when the driver asks her a question, she shoots back, “Ask her. She speaks Thai.” I feel my heart swell with a bittersweet love that can only accompany this type of goodbye. An until next time, again.

After that, my friends emerge in Bangkok from buses and flights, and we are caught up in good-to-see-you-again bear hugs. It’s been months, but somehow, it feels like no time has passed. We eat anything but Thai food, get to be anonymous tourists for a while, and have new adventures in Southeast Asia. Throughout it all, the “friend-time” is such a relief. It feels like the part of my heart that needs physical touch, deep conversation, and mutual adventure came back to life. I took an absurd number of pictures, slept in, stayed out late, laid on the beach, climbed mountains, explored temples, endured sickness and bus rides, and at the end of it, we all boarded our respective transportation headed towards home.

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A last quick hug, a goodbye before the elevator doors closed, and I walked out of the hostel again alone. Going back to my site, where I live, without other volunteers nearby. Going back to real life where I do the job that I’m here to do – and I’m back to saying, “When will I see you again?” Maybe May, maybe before. See you when I see you.

Amazingly, miraculously, I came back to site, and it felt like a puzzle piece clicking back into place. My house mercifully had not been overrun with ants in the time I’ve been gone, and co-workers lovingly grab my hand as they welcome me back, a few asking where I’ve been for so long as if they’re just realizing its been a month. My host brother runs to me in the market and hugs my leg; I hug him back and tell him how much I’ve missed him. I count down the days until I can spend the weekend at my host family’s house – excited to give them the gifts I’ve picked up during my travels.

After all the goodbyes in October, you’d think I would feel a little emptier. I’ve left people scattered across this country, not to mention the ones across the ocean. But, almost a year into this experience, I realize that my original fear was unfounded. Sure, sometimes the isolation of being a Peace Corps Volunteer is hard. But at the same time, the premise that I’m doing this “all alone” is just flat-out wrong. I may be battling a language barrier and dealing with culture clash, but I’ve found myself another home in my small rice-farming town in the mountains of Northern Thailand. And I’m definitely not in this alone.

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So, the whiplash of so many hellos and goodbyes has left me a little sore, but some of the most joyful hellos are when I finally came back to site. When I get to crouch in the dirt next to my three-year old brother and feel my heart swell close to bursting with how much I love this small human. How much I love this family, how lovingly they’ve let me into their lives. How tenderly they accommodate this weird, tall foreigner who Peace Corps decided would be part of their lives for a little while.

I was wrong to think I’m doing this alone – I’m not. The hellos are sweet, and the goodbyes far too frequent, but I’m finding the balance. At the end of the day, I’ve spent this time lamenting how many people I’ve grown to love… and if that isn’t one of the biggest blessings of this adventure, I don’t know what else could be.


Read Caitlin’s previous articles and contributions.

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