Not Taking It On

There are a lot of things you don’t have to take on. – June Diane

Before I joined the Peace Corps I assumed that I would be cut off from all technological communication, sending letters through the mail that would end up in the jaws of stray dogs before ever reaching my fellow volunteers. 14 Facebook groups and 27 group chats later I realize how foolish, and maybe hopeful, that was. One common thread throughout all of these forms of medium has been advice on which podcasts to listen to. Remembering taping Days of Our Lives on VHS tapes everyday in the 4th grade, I’m not exactly up on all of the coolest podcasts, but I do faithfully give one recommendation, B***h Sesh: A Real Housewives Breakdown (not censored). It’s hosted by two of the funniest comedians and gives my favorite topic the time and thoughtfulness it truly deserves.

Other volunteers don’t take me seriously when I suggest this but it is at their own loss. Just recently on an episode titled “Mystic Mistake”, before taking on the huge and important task of dissecting a dinner party hosted by “Mystic McKayla,” a guest host expanded my worldview more than any podcast delving into the human psyche ever could. I stood up from the dirty bucket used to collect vegetables, dropped the clothes I was hand washing back into the muddy water, and took a moment to be present as my whole life philosophy was upended.

Comedian June Diane told a story of her car being stolen right out of the driveway in front of her house. Instead of feeling shame or fear she decided that she just simply wasn’t going to mentally or emotionally take it on. “I’m not going to take on the identity of someone who’s had their car stolen from their driveway. I’m not going to take on the experience of that, what that means. I’m not going to take on the worldview of the victim of auto theft. All that is attached to it is not for me. I viewed it as; I see that that happened… over there. But that’s not anything for me right now,” she testifies at the 15:45 minute mark on “Mystic Mistake” hosted by Danielle Schneider and Casey Wilson.

When my little host nephew asks me to play fetch with him and the dog and I go outside and he hands me the skeleton jaw of a pig who I watched grow up, heard butchered, sold at the market, and then ate… not taking it on.

When I watch the dog eat a frog that I’ve just released outside after running around my room with a giant cup to capture it as it not only jumps but flies and then glides through the air onto my bed leaving small, damp marks of filth… not taking it on.

When I’m lying on my mattress, graciously not murdering the ants and beetles that also call it home, and a scorpion has the audacity to sting my ankle in this comfortable refuge that I’ve welcomed all creatures into… not taking it on.

When I use the squat toilet in an unfamiliar place because of an emergency and get done to see that there is no “bum gun” and definitely no toilet paper and that I’ll be using a tiny bucket and my hand to clean myself… that experience is not for me and I will not be taking it on.

This advice has come in most helpful with the spiders that make their home in my bathroom. I initially used the same cup that would assist me in my “rescue” of the frog to catch them and set them free outside. However, running around my bathroom squealing like a stereotypical gay sitcom character quickly got old and with the gaping hole in my bathroom wall called a “fan” allowing them to come back inside whenever they wanted I decided that it would be better to just coexist.

Not taking them on became easy with three different rationalizations. First, I assumed they would start to eat the other unwanted bugs in my life and they actually proved this theory correct by capturing my biggest foe, a baby scorpion, in one of their webs. Second, I began to fantasize about a Charlotte’s Web type scenario where the spiders would start leaving me messages to save the pigs in the backyard. Suddenly, the dingy cobwebs in every corner transformed into magical silk Ouija boards connecting our two worlds together and the sets of eight hairy legs that seconds ago carried my enemies were now carrying wise confidants with the voice of Julia Roberts. Finally, sometimes being at site is lonely and taking on spiders as pets was easier than a stray cat.

One day I noticed that an especially resourceful spider had caught fifty little bugs in their web. Not only was I proud of myself for this genius idea, imagine all fifty of them creeping into my bed one by one slowly starting to suck and fuel their lives off of my blood, but I was also proud of my spider’s work ethic during this massacre. As time passed though, it appeared that the bugs were morphing into miniature spiders. I knew nothing about spiders or insects but it seemed unusual for spider prey to start to look like spiders themselves. However, the alternative was that all of these bugs were actually baby spiders and that was something I also wouldn’t be taking on.

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Then one especially dark night, around 2am, I was drawn into the bathroom by an ominous energy and also the need to pee. In my sleepy state, a bravery that I can only credit to the remnants of the strong heroine I am in my dreams tricked me into conquering my fears. I boldly kind of looked with a quick glance in the general direction of the spider web.  I could no longer deny that the bugs were in fact spiders and that they were growing. The thought of fifty baby spiders crawling into the orifices on my face sprung me into action. I scanned the bathroom for a weapon and saw the bum gun. Someone within me, a stranger waiting in the shadows of my soul, emerged and put their finger on the trigger and sprayed. Lying in bed after this bloodbath, my thoughts teetered perilously close to a guilt spiral until I heard the soft voice of my real Charlotte, June Diane, whisper, “Because I know the depth of feeling that I’m capable of… that’s why I have a strong rigorous reflex that kicks in, which is like, that is not for me. “ I rolled over and fell into a deep, peaceful sleep murmuring over and over again, “that is not for me.”


 

An Island Curse

In moments of intense excitement, I tend to feel invincible. Thus was the case as I stood in front of my mirror with a beard trimmer and a pair of dulled scissors and decided to give myself a haircut. I wanted to look good for my upcoming trip to Koh Mak and thought that cutting my own hair would be easier than finding a barber. After a few minutes, I looked in the mirror and was in disbelief. I had given myself the best haircut of all time. I walked outside brimming with pride as my host mother and brother burst into laughter. Through unrestrained giggles, they asked me what I had done to myself. I looked in the mirror bewildered, only seeing the perfect haircut. My little brother grabbed my phone and took a picture of the back of my head as my host mother’s laughter turned silent, looked painful, and produced tears. The words gross, wiry, and patchy come to mind. 5 minutes later I was following my brother to the nearest barber who also laughed directly into the back of my head.

A few hours later my family prepared to drive me an hour to the closest volunteer’s house so that we could travel together. They could have taken me 15 minutes to the bus station but they don’t trust me to do anything on my own. They are completely justified in this mistrust as I stumble around their village like Ariel with brand new legs, unable to communicate and combing my hair with kitchen utensils. I’ve washed dishes with dog shampoo and my own clothes with fabric softener instead of detergent for 3 months. I’m like a giant toddler and my only form of survival is my mom’s Netflix password. If someone’s willing to hold it, this hand will always accept, and so my journey began.

We made it to the island after a relatively uneventful trip and were reunited with all of the other volunteers for the first time in 5 weeks. We initially planned to frolic through the water and take Instagram pictures but were met with sharp rocks, broken shells, and sea urchin stingers. Even though the bright red cuts on all of my toes oddly complimented the fresh paint of glitter polish on my nails, we decided to flee. Our bloody, little baby feet bravely carried us to safety: a kayak rental hut. I decided to take my phone because it was waterproof and I didn’t have my host mom to tell me it was a bad idea.

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As I floated on my kayak from island to island, with all of my closest friends, life was a daydream. There was laughing, dancing, kissing, snorkeling. We were carefree. If the brown water we had showered with for the past month hadn’t settled into mountains of teenage acne on our foreheads, we could have been a Neutrogena commercial. Then, all of a sudden, in slow motion our kayak flipped. I grabbed my backpack with Spider Man like reflexes and was full of false pride for the second time in 4 days. Everyone cheered as I hoisted it over my head. This was the most athletic thing I’d done since getting to first base after taking a ball to the hand from the pitching machine in tee ball.

I unzipped the pocket I thought my phone was in just to double check that it was there and it wasn’t. I peered over the side of the kayak and very calmly stated, in a tone reserved for serial killers on Dateline, “My phone is sinking to the bottom of the ocean.” My friends jumped into action and yelled for the goggles, which we soon discovered were also on their way down to join my phone in polluting the ocean with more unwanted plastic from idiot humans. As we floated back to shore I sang a little India Arie in my head and mellowed out enough to stop caring about my phone and enjoy the rest of the trip.

On the boat leaving the island I realized that I had left my water bottle in our room. It’s more traumatic than it sounds. This water bottle has been my best friend at site. It’s been my pacifier in uncomfortable situations, heaved in to stop the tears. My safety blanket keeping me comfort on lonely nights. A sympathetic face through the crowd as I’m being forced to dance like a wind-up doll while belting out generic love songs that until the moment a microphone was shoved into my hands had laid forgotten in the 90’s. The thought of returning to site without it gave me instant acid reflux.

Unknowingly, I would have more time than I thought to get used to the idea of being alone at site without my cellphone or water bottle. After what seemed like 100 hours on boats, buses, and vans, we discovered that our final bus was sold out and that we would have to backtrack 4 more hours to Bangkok and stay the night. By the time we reached our hostel all of our spirits were bruised. We would have to use another vacation day because we “didn’t plan ahead,” and wouldn’t even be able to enjoy it.

The next morning we called and booked our tickets as soon as we woke up and headed to the bus station. We exited the Skytrain in a monsoon and stepped into ankle deep water. We hadn’t done any research on where the bus station was in relation to our Skytrain stop until we were hanging onto a railing in the middle of the street as flood waters filled the cuts on our toes with bacteria from the depths of Bangkok. We watched as the time ticked past the departure of our scheduled bus, proving ourselves to be useless two days in a row.

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When I finally made it home, much later that night, and got through the retelling of my adventure to my host family, they could barely breathe from laughter. I’m their real life Buddy the Elf, turning what are mundane tasks for them into impossible undertakings for me. The only person not laughing was my grandmother. She eyed me suspiciously and took two steps back before declaring that I was cursed on the island. Finally, I had something to be proud of: a real-life island curse, just like the Brady Bunch.

The following day my entire family accompanied me to a temple in the mountains. We rang a bell on each step as we ascended the stairs, being watched closely by monkeys jumping from tree to tree. Once we reached the temple I was blessed by the eldest monk to rid me of my island curse. It was truly one of the most special moments I have ever had. Perspective set in and I realized that every mishap, from the bad haircut to the flood, was a worthy step towards this incredible experience.

Temple with Yai


 

Welcome Back to Tie Arm

I got to my permanent site in Si Thep, Phetchabun the week of March 22nd. The school that I will be teaching at had already finished classes and was getting ready for their graduation. It has kindergarten through 9th grade and about 140 students. I was immediately welcomed at my school by the teaching staff and principal. Everyone that I have interacted with in Thailand has gone out of their way to make me feel at home, it’s a really special place.

I spent the first week at site sitting in the school office while the other teachers did their end of year paperwork. I talked to other nervous volunteers about what their sites were like, played volleyball with the students until my weak, little baby arms were bright red and bruised, and helped them make decorations for the graduation ceremony. It was a relatively easy and comfortable week, which always means that I’m about to be pushed dangerously outside of my comfort zone.

The day before graduation, one of the two English teachers that I will co-teach with casually told me that they would introduce me to the community the following day. I had seen Instagram posts of other volunteers being welcomed into their communities and assumed that I knew what to expect. That night, I prepared a few sentences of what I would say in Thai and didn’t think much else of it.

The next day I showed up at school, walked with a carefree stride to the cafeteria, where the ceremony would be held, and was immediately greeted by a banner with my full body standing awkwardly in front of the school. I was momentarily stunned by the shape of my body on this poster hanging for my whole community to see. After the shock wore off, it started to sink in that this ceremony was probably going to be different than what I had expected.

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I sat and watched students of different grade levels graduate with tears in my eyes. It started to sink in that I would be their teacher, that my dream since I was 19 was actually happening. I felt so proud to have the honor to work with the fellow teachers at my school, to teach their students and watch them grow. As I lingered in my emotional daze I was slowly led to the table in front of my banner. As the community members moved their chairs to face me, I was instructed to sit on the table.

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The sweat began immediately. All moisture drained from my mouth. I was all too aware that I was sitting on a table with everyone from my community looking at me as I smiled uncomfortably out at them. It’s hard to tell whether the smile that I was presently wearing or the one from the photo hanging above me would convince them that I was a serial killer, but I’m sure that one of them haunt their dreams to this day.

An elder of the community then sat on the table with me relieving some of my anxiety. He tied string around both of our hands as he prayed and then a cloth was placed over my head. A teacher quickly jumped under the cloth followed by my host mother.

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After this part of the ceremony, I was moved to the center of the table and given an egg and banana leaf wrapped rice dessert. I held these in my hand as each member of the community came up to me and gave me blessings and luck while tying a white string around my wrist. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever experienced. The back pain stayed but the stress and anxiety disappeared.

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The community elder then dipped flowers in Thai whiskey and splashed it on my face as a blessing.

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Finally, I watched as the hard-boiled egg, hot from being in my sweaty palm for 30 minutes, was ceremoniously cut open. It was then moving closer and closer to my face. As I thought, “surely, they don’t want me to eat this,” the first half was plunged into my dry mouth. Before I had the chance to finish what had turned into hot egg paste, the other half made its entrance, followed shortly by the rice treat. It took me a very long time to swallow everything as the community watched me intently trying not to gag.

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I was so grateful to everyone in my community for being so loving to the strange American on the table. Over the past two months they have all treated me like a family member. My “Welcome Back to Tie Arm” ceremony was a beautifully odd experience that I will never forget.

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A 5th Grader and His Treehouse

Since the last time I posted a blog I finished 10 weeks of language, culture, and teaching training, officially swore in as a Peace Corp volunteer, moved from my first host family in Sing Buri to my second host family in Si Thep, Phetchabun, became a pork salesman and taught three weeks of English at my new school. I finally feel like I have a second to breathe and reflect so I’m going to post a series of throwback stories. The first story sums up my experience living with my host family in Sing Buri.

My host parents were a 60-year-old fisherman, Luung Yum, and a 59-year-old farmer, Bpaa Meow. They lived in a beautiful open treehouse that only had two rooms separated by walls, my bedroom and the bathroom, although the walls of my bedroom had large, visible gaps between each board. Both the front and backyards were gardens full of vegetables and fruits that I ate fresh daily and across the street was a river where Lunng Yum caught our breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It was exactly the kind of place I pictured living in during my service with Peace Corps.

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The 8 hours of training everyday were grueling but the hardest part of my day was finishing my plate of rice, hot bowl of fish soup, and glass of Ovaltine every morning. I used to gag at the site of a plain piece of toast at breakfast and now I was handed a full, hearty meal while 4 eyes stared at me listening to every chew and swallow. I had to revisit my old bag of tricks that I used as a small child, the last time I was forced to finish a plate of food. On Mondays I had diarrhea (every time my mom has ever served fish sticks), Tuesdays I was still recovering, Wednesdays I woke up late and would pack my food to “eat at school,” Thursdays and Fridays I would sneak fish out of the house in soggy napkins shoved in my pockets, and on the weekends I ate alone and would sneak food to our puppy. It was pathetic but effective, a phrase that sums up most aspects of my life.

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After school I would come home and Bpaa Meow would hand me a juice box, piece of fruit, and snack. Then, when Luung Yum finished fishing he would help me with my Thai homework. He liked making me say Thai phrases dramatically in front of his friends and I loved being ridiculous and putting on a show. I felt protected in a way that I hadn’t since high school when I lived at home with my family. Between Peace Corps and my host family almost all of my decisions were made for me and I found that I had to trade my independence for that feeling of protection. For 10 weeks the constant care and lack of autonomy was suffocating but also nostalgic in a sweet way.

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My favorite part of the day was 7:30pm when I would be told to shower and go to bed. My time in my bedroom at night and when I woke up in the morning was the only time that felt like my own. I would text my friends, read, write, or quietly watch Real Housewives. Something about the contrast of me lying under a mosquito net with ants crawling on my legs and Erika Jayne getting her hair and make up done and outfits carefully picked out and put together in a “Look Book” by an army of perfectly manicured gay men soothed my soul. My first 8 weeks at site I didn’t even have a mirror to look into, let alone any chance of anyone in the world being able to make me look remotely presentable.

Then one day a mirror magically showed up in my bedroom next to the door, as if the Evil Queen brought it herself to mess with me. It was strange to have a constant reminder of what I looked like. Most mornings I wished that it had never appeared but at night after my shower it was nice to see myself again. I hadn’t seen my body in two months so I would stand in front of it fully naked and check things out from various angles. I had gained weight from eating 3 full meals a day and I liked the way it looked, a little butt was actually starting to appear! Feeling like such an alien every day, it was nice to remind myself that I was, in fact, mostly human. I wish I could be a normal person and say it was a quick glance, but this preening easily lasted 10-15 minutes.

Five days after the arrival of my mirror, I came home to find that Bpaa Meow’s numerous posters of the King of Thailand had been moved and plastered all over the outside wall of my room. I thought it was strange until I walked into the kitchen and realized that standing there you could see directly into my room, right where I stand in front of the mirror. We were taught in training that there would be a lack of privacy living with our Thai host families but what I didn’t know was that this meant I would be putting on a nightly strip show for my 59-year-old host mother.

Living with Bpaa Meow and Luung Yum was an amazing experience and although I had a lack of freedom and privacy, I made up for it with a pocket full of tissue wrapped fish soup.

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Bike Day

During my Peace Corps interview I may have inadvertently exaggerated the extent of my athleticism. By a little more than a lot. It was an accident, I didn’t know what I was saying. Ignorance is bliss… that turns into diarrhea inducing terror. This led to months of anxiety that I would be biking long distances, undoubtedly getting lost, and then probably dying by a pack of stray dogs or being kidnapped and sold on the depths of the internet.

Luckily, worrying about biking took my mind off of worrying about all of the other things there were to worry about. Which in the end was extremely helpful because 80% of them never came true and when I did have to squat poop into the ground and spray my butt clean with a “bum-gun” it wasn’t really all that bad. It was actually productive and refreshing. I can’t say the same for showering, brushing my teeth, and shaving with a bucket but even that feels like an adventure.

The day before “Bike Day,” the day we would receive our bikes and have our skill level assessed, we learned about the rabid stray dogs of Thailand and what to do if they attacked. We should remain calm or freak out or run away or stand our ground or look them in the eye or not look them in the eye or scream or stay quiet. Oh, but never show any fear or let them bite on the face. Basically pray and hope you have a random piece of meat to throw. Last year 19 (ish?) volunteers were bit by dogs so the threat is real. It was a very reassuring session that didn’t make me cry.

The scent of fear exuded from my body as I showed up to “Bike Day.” Every dog in a three-mile radius perked up as I walked closer to my bike, my anxiety whetting their appetite. I put on my helmet and jumped on, not knowing what would happen. Within one second, I remembered how easy and fun riding a bike was. The scenery along the way distracted me from the threat of dogs and made me feel like I could bike for hundreds of miles. Coincidentally, this is the exact overexcited thinking that put me in this predicament to begin with. Zero lessons learned!

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After riding my bike for a few miles (maybe?) I realized that I had fallen behind into another group. My leisurely pace and absent mind had led me astray. I could still see my group so I figured that would count for something with my evaluator. Then, all of a sudden everyone had stopped. They said there were thorns on the road and to be careful. Before I could hear them say not to remove them, I excitedly declared that I found a thorn and pulled it out as all of the air quickly whooshed from my tire.

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Long story short, I failed “Bike Day.” On the bright side I’m now living in a village right on the river with all of the age 50+ volunteers that is super close to the schools we are working and studying at. In the end, my inadequacy worked out really well. I love my host family and the house that I will be living in for the first 10 weeks and I only pass a few stray dogs on my very short trip to school. I even have a pocket full of meat that I sneak out after not being able to finish it at breakfast and a very long stick. More on this soon. ❤

Underprepared & Overconfident

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A few years ago in Honduras my best friend Jeb and I were sleeping on two tiny, metal beds in a room where the walls fell short of meeting the roof. I woke that night in a state of panic as my bed was being slammed back and forth off the wall. I pleaded with Jeb to stop, afraid that he’d had a psychotic break and I would open my eyes to see him standing over me calmly as he stared into my eyes and robotically threw me and my bed into the wall. Even worse, he would be dead and I would be on the verge of a night of torture by bloodthirsty intruders.

When I finally had the courage to open my eyes no one was there. I looked across the room and Jeb was still in his bed. After years of being scared by every rustle of the leaves it was finally happening, I was about to be murdered by a ghost. I wanted to scream Jeb’s name or for someone to help but the only thing that escaped was a high-pitched whimper. All of those nights lying awake afraid to sleep, the hours spent coming up with plans on what to do during a ghost attack, the hairs lost fleeing my hairline over the stress of an otherworldy murder were all in vain. I chickened out and succumbed to defeat without even a word.

Around this very low point in my life Jeb woke up and we looked at each other in horror. He gained composure first and yelled, “hit the ground, it’s a tornado!” Sudden relief filled my body. “Oh, just a tornado.” I rolled off my bed into the middle of the room and took shelter under nothing. The large beam barely holding up the roof, right above my body, shook and rattled as my bed continued to thrash.

In this whole ordeal, this is when I was most calm. My friend hadn’t lost his mind, there were no murderers or ghosts, just a tornado, the only thing from this list that should actually be a concern. It turns out that it wasn’t a tornado, it was a 5.6 magnitude earthquake that cracked the walls of the bunkhouse we were staying in. I did probably the worst thing to do in a tornado, or an earthquake, but God had spared me once again. I spent the next day being more upset that I had failed my first ghost test than the reality that my bones should have been crushed by a metal beam.

Joining the Peace Corps, moving to Thailand for 27 months, and starting my training to become a Thai speaking, English teacher reminds me of laying unprotected under a shaking beam in a high magnitude earthquake, being calm and grateful that it was “just a tornado” and not a murderer or ghost. It reminds me that I packed a Swiss army knife that is currently poking holes through my socks because I can’t get the knife piece to go back in but didn’t think to bring a wallet to carry my money. It reminds me that I know the taglines for every Real Housewife of Atlanta but not how to order food in my new native tongue.

Luckily, this time I get to be overconfident because I’m not actually really all that underprepared. Everyday it becomes more clear that this is exactly where I’m supposed to be. After two days of training all of the worries that I should have had would be gone. Peace Corps knows what they’re doing and I have no doubt that I’ll be prepared to speak, teach, and stay safe for the next two years.