My departure for the Peace Corps has inched along. I was practically collecting countdowns to “zero hours” with respect to the start of my service. The last night biking home in the drizzle on a puddle of a bike path, squinting to spot headlights between rain drops. The last Cuban sandwich from the shack of gustatory wizardry down the street from my dad’s. I’d claim that I savored the final mug of serious Seattle coffee but the caffeine didn’t stir in so well with subconscious stress and pre-departure anxiety.
Actually leaving Seattle, I had a bit of a fake-out. The first bus that carried us south towards Portland began dripping oil onto the engine forty minutes in, prompting us to turn around, head back into Sodo and swap buses at the garage. I’ll call the smoke and exhaust preparation for the smoggy two-cycle motorcycles of Bangkok that my dad told me about.
In Portland, the two days of Staging to prepare us for arriving in Thailand were surprisingly relaxed. A low-stress chance to get to know the crew of volunteers that are serving with me. Mostly, Staging fit right into the other creepingly slow countdowns to Thailand. In any case, leaving didn’t hit me.
Through all the prep at Staging, many of my first conversations with volunteers touched on whether “it had hit us yet.” The moving to Thailand bit. The 28 months bit. Staging felt decidedly normal, except that my new acquaintances – though they don’t feel new – are a support system, comrades not-in-arms, fellow appreciators of peanut butter, Mexican food, pancakes, whatever it is we’ll miss for those 28 months.
My cohort spans the range of demographics that Peace Corps claimed it would – married couples, retirees, returned PC volunteers (RPCVs) back for another round, and us recent-college-grad whippersnappers. At first, however, I was surprised by how much the recent college grad contingent dominated our group dynamics, setting the tone of Staging. That and the fact that the captain on our first flight welcomed us aboard as “sixty six kids with the Peace Corps headed for Thailand.”
Saturday at 4:30 in the morning, sixty six of us loaded two buses in the freezing parking lot of the Portland Airport Holiday Inn. A little bit of sleet, making a respectable attempt to become snow, was the last freezing precipitation in my foreseeable future.
After a three-hour bus ride through I-5’s apocalyptically dense fog, we made it to Seatac. No Dementors assailed us from said fog. By noon, the fog blocking the Olympic Mountains dissolved and let loose a last skyline of Constance and the Brothers.
Notably, I had a couple firsts on the Seattle–Tokyo plane. My neighbor was a middle-aged Lao woman, now living in Seattle and on her way to a friend’s wedding in Thailand. She lived on the Lao–Thai border for years, “decades ago,” in a refugee camp that no longer exists. She might have left Laos during the U.S.’ large-scale bombing campaign in the 1960s, I didn’t ask. “Nothing there anymore,” she insists, before extracting a promise that I’d head straight to Luang Prabang if or when I make it Laos.
My first exchange in Thai with a fluent, almost-native speaker consisted of hellos, thank-yous and a “Gin Kao,” – “Bon a petit,” approximately. “Eat rice,” literally. My row-mate, unable to eat gluten-heavy plane food, produced a package of homemade sticky rice. Plain, slightly sweet. Definitely sticky, enough so that we broke off chunks and ate it by hand. She soaks the proper kind of rice overnight, strains it and steams it for about ten minutes. I guess it makes sense to start the inevitable blogging about food with the basics. I was grateful for all her tidbits of advice and she seemed relieved that the sixty six of us would be trying to make the same tight flight connection in Tokyo. Here’s hoping I’ll be able to have this kind of an exchange in Thai in a couple months.
The rest of the trip to Bangkok steadily slid into delirium and stagnation. Time was definitely not passing but at the same time we’d better be getting close to arrival. The real question remains, can you still refer to a length of time as “umpteen hours” if it’s actually far more than 19?
We slumped off the plane in Bangkok at 11:10 PM local time Sunday night and I didn’t do the math to figure out what time my jelly legs, back and tailbone thought it was. Peace Corps Thailand was there to greet us in the terminal with a million smiles, flower necklaces, photographs and little bags of fruit. Some hours on a bus out of Bangkok to the Golden Dragon Resort in Sing Buri, a few hours of sleep and Peace Corps Thailand Group 128 slid into day one of staging – breakfast, getting over jetlag, introductions and some overviews of the next ten weeks of PST.