Hello out there!
Well, I'm back at my site and hard at work. Ha! Back at my site, anyway.
After travelling around Southeast Asia for two months, I came back to my village determined to stick around for a while. Not leave, reconnect, and save some money. For the most part, I've been doing that (with just one night out at the disco, but it was for a good reason, and I did it frugally). I kind of feel like when I first got here. I was feeling a little out of touch, so I've been using the past few weeks to hang out and get to know everyone, all over again. The Peace Corps has a silly acronym for this sort of thing: they call it "IRBing," which stands for "Intentional Relationship Building." I call it "chillin'."
Which is fine, that's about where I'm supposed to be right now, and I'm more or less on par with the other people in my group. It's been good to be back. The vacation was necessary, but now I feel all right just relaxing. Thai people can drive you crazy sometimes, but lately I've been getting along well with everyone. Spending time with the office staff, with Ja and the health center staff, with P. Mee, with everyone really.
Chinese New Year passed. Nobody in my village celebrated or did anything! They laughed when I asked about it. They said, "We're not Chinese! We're Thai and Lao!" Silly me. Well, gosh-darn it, I celebrated. I went out and bought a bunch of firecrackers and started setting them off and calling out "Happy Chinese New Year!" and "Happy Year of the Dog!" I got some pretty sweet firecrackers, colorful ones, and loud black cats. I've always been a pyro.
Suddenly, everyone came running! People showed up on bicycles and motorcycles from all over the village. Apparently, they light off firecrackers whenever somebody dies. That's to let the village know that there's been a death and everyone comes to help with the body. So, everyone showed up asking "Who died? Who died?" And there's just this crazy falang saying, "Happy Chinese New Year?" We all had a good laugh about it, especially me. Anyway, they'll be talking about that one for a long time to come.
It was nothing like last year, when I was in training in Central Thailand. Down there, they lit off firecrackers at 4 am! I remember waking up with a start, thinking I was back in 'Nam. I remember going to a huge festival at the local wat. Well, there are more Chinese in Central Thailand and really none where I live.
Pondering over last year's Chinese New Year leads me to think, "Wow! I've been here for over a year already!" Which is really quite crazy, when you think about it. Yes, my life is in Thailand now. Passed the year mark. Quite an accomplishment. I'm not even the youngest group anymore. Group 118 arrived safely in January. Hopefully I'll get to meet some of them soon. The word on the street is that they're an older, more serious group, but we'll see. Of course, it's hard to get less serious than my group.
In fun news, I went to a "malawmsing" last week in my friend P. Mee's village. A "malawmsing," you may recall, is a giant country party. It's a bit hard to describe and is very "Isan." Picture, if you will, a bunch of Isanites dancing in the middle of a field, or the grounds of wat, all night long. It's quite fun. The rice whiskey never stopped flowing. It's the dry season now, so a bunch of dust was kicked up. The music was all Isan, but with a techno beat. There was also a huge stage with scantily-clad dancers (they're everywhere in Thailand). The event was momentous because not only did I have tons of fun, but I also got pretty drunk. I only mention this because it's a sign of how comfortable I've gotten in my village. Everyone goes and gets drunk. I also knew most of the people there and consider myself to be friends with all of them. Also, all the kids come as well and the kids are my favorites. There was no way I could get home so I ended up crashing at P. Mee's house. I slept on her floor. It's times like this when I really feel like I'm part of the community.
But, I really knew I was part of the village, when I was asked (told, really) to compete in the annual dance-aerobics competition. Yes, I have now competed in a dance-aerobics contest. Believe it or not. When I worked at the Y, all I could tell you about the aerobics studio was where it was located. And look at me now....
Right now, it's the cold season, and that means the sports season. The coldest it's ever gotten in my village was in the 50s at night. Lately, it's been in the 60s at night and back up to the 80s during the day. But, all the villages have been competing non-stop in soccer, volleyball, and takraw. Takraw is a Thai sport in which a hard-ball (made from rattan) is kicked around, like a hackey-sack, but without the arms, only the feet and the head. There's a net, and two on each team, like beach volleyball. So, anyway, most of my time lately has been spent at these sports competitions.
To close out the tournament, they had the aerobics competition. Each village had to come up with their own routine and perform it. I performed with the people in my village. They were crazily serious about it! More serious about this than anything else! They insisted on practicing the routine over and over again, ad nauseum. The day before the competition, they rehearsed from 9 am to 10 pm. I kept finding excuses to leave. "Uh, I have to go to work," I said (ha!).
Anyway, the competition was quite exciting. My village got kudos for having a falang dancing with them. I thought we were awesome. We had a good routine and we were all in time with each other. We all wore smart yellow shirts and white gloves. Unfortunately, we didn't win. The winning village all had matching purple shirts, black pants, and orange hats. I think it was the hats that did it. My village was a little disappointed, but I told them I thought we were the best, and that seemed to cheer them up.
In the end, it was a good chance for me to "IRB" with the people in my immediate village, meaning the village I live in. I don't know them quite as well, because most of my work tends to be in the main-village and in P. Mee's village. My village is where my house is and I tend to view my house as "sanctuary." That's where I go at the end of my day to listen to my music and read my books. So, it was good for me to bond with the neighbors a bit.
I have two PCV friends who are changing their sites! In our one year plus, my group is still intact, nobody has gone home yet. But, we do have two people moving. The people at their site (they're a married couple) were just never interested in working with them. The people who had requested a PCV to begin with had moved away before they got there. After one year of nothing, they were pretty frustrated, so PC is moving them to a new place which should be a lot better. They lived in my province, so we had a going-away party last weekend. I thought that was a good enough reason to go spend one night at the disco. Fortunately, they'll still be pretty close to me so I'll get to see them as regularly as I have.
The Country Director of Peace Corps Thailand, Dr. John Williams, came to visit me last week. Dr. John, as we call him, tries to vist all of the PCVs at least once during their service. He was in the area, finishing visiting all the PCVs from Group 116 and he said he had time to swing by and see me. I think he was checking up on me, but the visit went well. Unfortunately, he didn't stay for very long. He checked out my house, we visited the health center and the office. We talked about what I've done and what I'm doing (or not doing) at the moment. Just as I suspected, I'm a normal, "textbook" PCV. Anyway, it was a good chance to talk to the "big-boss" and get to know him a little better.
He told me some interesting stories. He was a PCV in Isan in the 1960s, in the city of Nong Khai. Of course, life was much harder back then. But, he worked directly with two other PCVs. They also had a motorcycle and a Jeep! Not fair! He told me he used to head to Udon to watch English movies just like I do. Also, there were areas he was restricted from because they were Communist! He said my district was famous for being Communist!
I asked Goi a little bit about this and she told me that a lot of the provinces in this area, near Lao (and not far from Vietnam) were Communist-controlled in the '60s and '70s. Then they were forced into hiding in the mountains. Goi's father was in the army and fought against them. Fascinating history.
So, why was Peace Corps checking up on me? I think they're concerned about me. I'm not sure why, except that I tend to be a litte outspoken. They're also worried about their image. So, in an effort to help the image of Peace Corps, let me reiterate: Peace Corps is the best damned experience in the world for everyone involved. You should join immediately. It's also the smartest thing the US Government's ever done. If my blog hasn't shown this, then I'm sorry, and I'll do better. Also, if my blog has convinced someone not to join the Peace Corps, please let me know and give me the chance to change your opinion.
As for Peace Corps staff, they're like Rodney Dangerfield, they get no respect. They've been down in the dumps. After all, they have to sit behind desks in Bangkok all day. They can't breathe fresh air and go fishing all the time like us out in the field. They work hard keeping us rascally PCVs in line. It also doesn't help their self-image when ungrateful PCVs, like yours truly, accidentally send the Office vitriolic text-messages decrying their latest boneheaded decisions. But, hey, we all make mistakes.
So, in conclusion, I love Peace Corps and everyone involved, even those who lack senses of humor. Also, in case there's any confusion, I'm proud to be an American. God bless the troops. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Communist Party. Peace Corps, this Bud's for you.
Peace and love,
"If I had a hammer
I'd hammer in the morning
I'd hammer in the evening
All over this land,
I'd hammer out danger
I'd hammer out a warning
I'd hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters
All over this land."
-Lee Hays and Pete Seeger