Natalie Garro, 129 TESS
“Happy 3 years in Thailand?” Andy wishes our group chat with classic Andy wit.
The question mark makes a bit more sense given the context of our conversation – centered around recent U.S. political events – but context aside, I still find it fitting. Three years in, and there’s an unspoken understanding between the 4 of us that “happy” is an oversimplification of the ceaseless cycle of peaks and valleys that have formed the track of this roller coaster experience – the highs and lows rolling in like waves, coming and going as quietly as the tides.
“Easy” isn’t a word any of us would use to describe our lives here, either. We have all faced unique, individual challenges. We have all faced many of these challenges alone. We have also leaned on each other through many others.
Our group chat usually consists of Andy and I going off on long-form rants, Chandler and Michael coming in with humor delicate enough to lighten the discussion without being dismissive. Andy sends a meme. Chan brings up politics. Andy rants about site. Chandler sends a brief reply. Michael talks about his dream in which he and I discover people can fly by kicking their legs really hard, but no one believes us, then we get really excited, so we fly around, only to discover we don’t know how to land, and his dream morphs into a nightmare where he and I are stuck in the sky; and I almost always leave one of our text sessions laughing out loud.
Our dynamic is an odd mixture of seriousness, understanding, empathy, support, non-chalantness, humor, and shrug emojis, all of which I think is a testament to the people we’ve evolved into over these last three years – somehow simultaneously both apart and together, in that weird amalgamation of camaraderie that is the government-issued friendship situation of Peace Corps.
But these relationships go beyond that, though not because these are the people I talk to every day – we’re not quite that active in our group chat. Andy, Michael, and Chandler are the people I came here with. We’ve experienced each moment of the ever-present “cycle of vulnerability and adjustment” along the same timeline. Both individually and collectively, we made the decision to stay the extra year. Together we marveled at how Thailand became “home” in the truest sense – a place where we have grown into ourselves in unexpected, but necessary ways. Together we have melted into Thailand – peeling back layers of ourselves, shedding expectations, embracing the comparative chaos of life here.
And now 3 of us are preparing to leave. How comforting it is to share that pain. There is no one else on the planet who can understand these feelings the way these three friends can.
I’d never experienced anything that ached in quite the same way as saying goodbye to my family at the airport at the start of this journey, and I sure didn’t expect to ever feel anything similar again in this lifetime. As my numbered days living here continue to fall from the calendar, grains of sand washing down the hourglass, I find myself breaking into bouts of tears with increasing frequency. I feel the inevitability of goodbye tightening, coiling at the bottom of my throat. I know leaving is an ache I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life. My friends feel it, too. I see it in the pictures they post, which have changed. The shift is subtle. Somehow now their exaggeratedly posed pictures look less staged and more natural – the way old friends fall into each other before the camera. There is a knowing there that exists only between those who have shared a chunk of life – even a chunk as small as our brief three years have been.
Every month, my host mom swings by my rental house to collect rent and bring me some fruit. About a year in, these visits started growing longer and longer. 10 minutes became 20, 30, an hour. These days we find ourselves laughing for up to two hours. We know each others heartaches, diets, and general comings-and-goings. She tells me she’s going to move into my house when I leave, and then when I come back to visit, it’ll be exactly the same, and I can stay here as long as I want, or if my friends want to come visit, they can stay here. I love the idea of her filling this space. No one else in Thailand has made me feel loved the way she has. There have been days when my rental house felt like the big empty belly of a whale that swallowed me whole, but my people here have filled these modest rooms with joy and laughter, and I think those memories are embedded in the walls, the same way my life here is embedded in my bones.
I can no longer imagine a me without Thailand. A life without knowing the people who’ve helped me grow into the me that will soon say a goodbye even more painful than the goodbye that began this adventure. This goodbye is less certain. I don’t know whether or not I’ll move back to Thailand, but it’d be untrue to say I haven’t considered staying forever, haven’t considered it often, don’t continue to consider it.
This comes up in our group chat. We’ve all considered staying indefinitely. I’m sure my friends feel similarly – the us that exist now wouldn’t exist had we never come here; of course, that much is obviously true. I think there’s also a part of all of us that is no longer sure how to exist without the people we love here, without the culture that can be all at once maddening and curative, without Thailand. And I know I wouldn’t know how to do this – the leaving part – without these three extraordinary humans who have been exactly the companions I needed on this third trip around the sun in this devastatingly hot country. I know knowing they’re out there, feeling feelings so similar to and intricately intertwined with my own, gives me the strength to believe life will continue to evolve, even after I no longer have a mailing address here. Together we have conquered our third year. Together, we will readjust, we will miss, we will ache.
I know I’m somehow simultaneously ready for the next step and not ready to say goodbye to all parts of my life here. I know the goodbye is coming – the most painful one I’ve ever said. I know the tears will continue to flow; I will mourn the life I’m leaving behind long after I have a new mailing address in New York. I know there is pain ahead – the kind that only comes from loving with one’s entire soul. And I know, as I move forward, into uncertainty, into the pain, I won’t be alone.