Peace Corps Years

I served over 2 years as a US Peace Corps Volunteer facilitating youth development projects in rural Thailand. From life skills camps to a young filmmakers club, student art exchanges with American schools, daily class-room time teaching English, environmental awareness campaigns, and countless evenings spent culturally integrating with the people of my village have left me with language and professional experiences that will last a lifetime. Official “Description of Service” (DOS) documentation available by request.

Blog Entries

 Thailand has more flavors of Lay’s potato chips than the US by far. Everything from “Hot Chili Squid” to “Icy Lemon”. As an American, I assumed that we had won the potato chip flavor war. But almost every time I enter a 7-11 here, a new flavor has been released. And that’s only considering chips made by Lays! I’ve come to understand that a country as interesting as Thailand will result in things like “Basil Chicken” and “Lasagna” chips. America- we need to up our flavor game!

 Holidays like Christmas are well known and celebrated in Thailand. Halloween, on the other hand, is relatively unknown, so I helped one of my elementary schools learn about this haunted day while having fun! We checked out a Jack ‘o Lantern, listened to spooky music (“Monster Mash” has been playing on repeat in my head ever since), and let our creativity run wild making masks out of paper plates. Boo!

 This year I was selected as a “spotlight volunteer” and had to answer a litany of questions about my service. I’ve decided to share my responses as a post below.
• Personal information of interest (marital status, children, hobbies, travel experience, college • organizations, activities, etc.) (optional): I got married less than 4 months before staging! It’s been hard living away from my husband, but this is something we had been preparing for well in advance. My hobbies include filmmaking and technology, both of which I’ve folding into my service: from my young filmmakers club to watching the latest SpaceX launches in class. Traveling extensively and living around the world is a part of who I am. In college I was actively involved in environmental organizations (Students for Environmental Action, Greenpeace). In Los Angeles, I was a citizenship test volunteer instructor for the International Rescue Committee, where I also developed new digital curriculum for their national program. Besides my career shooting films and television shows, I’ve also been a musician playing drums in rock bands most of my teen and adult life. I run (mostly) daily in my community. • Describe your site (e.g., where you live, where you work, population, culture, size of community, etc.): My town is small (one traffic light) community, but growing very quickly, with all the challenges that implies. I have a small apartment within walking distance of the local government office, our open air market, a beautiful lake, and one of my schools. The population is composed of mainly farmers and, due to our location near the border, ethnically Laotian-Thai. I am constantly impressed by the way everyone can seem very laid back while still being impressively productive. Our region is called Isaan, and its culture and traditions are distinct from other parts of Thailand: from our indigo-dyed clothing, specific dances, events like our rocket festival, etc. Thai is spoken by most, but Isaan (a Laotian dialect) and Puuthai are commonly heard around town as well. • Description of your primary and secondary projects. Be sure to include any special initiatives you carried out (e.g., grants received, incorporation of HIV/AIDS or malaria prevention messages, technology, partnerships, etc.): Besides teaching life skills and assisting the english teachers, I have a young filmmakers club, and have co-facilitated quite a few camps and events at my schools. I will be running a technology camp and introducing programming skills next term to my older students. I am looking forward to hosting a swimming and water safety camp, along with gender and leadership camps during my last year here.1. Why did you apply to Peace Corps?I had reached a point in my film and television career where I was no longer feeling challenged or fulfilled. After taking the time to do some self-reflection on my personal and career goals, I decided to rededicate my life to public service. Peace Corps is step one in this journey towards challenging myself and helping others.2. What helped you prepare for Peace Corps service?My previous career producing and shooting documentary and “reality” TV was oddly some of the best preparation I could have hoped for! Working in an unstructured environment? Check. Getting along with people from different cultures and backgrounds? Check. Staying focused and meeting goals while unsupervised? Check. Watching planned projects fall apart, and still making everything work out? Check!a. How did your hometown or state influence or prepare you to join Peace Corps?Growing up in a small rural town has definitely taught me to be more resourceful. Like my Thai site, Nacogdoches is agriculture driven, and I learnt early on to respect those working hard in the fields.b. How did your college or university influence or prepare you to join Peace Corps?Without childhood friends or family present, I had to learn to stand up and fight for what was important to me. I was exposed to the diverse world of art and many different cultures at my college. My friendships with some of the international students turned out to be very eye opening and many of them continue today, a decade later. I had the freedom to figure out my own gender identity surrounded by other oddball art school students. I developed a more mindful approach to life in general.3. How does your identity (gender, age, ethnicity, religious, sexual, ability, cultural, upbringing, economic status, etc.) shape your Peace Corps experience? (optional)(gender) Women and men in Thailand live very different lives. Home duties, expectations, and career outlook are constrained by gender, and it has been a challenge at time navigating this aspect of Thai society. I am fascinated by Thailand’s “katoy” (trans-women), and how they are treated (both negatively and positively) by Thai society.(age) As a 35 year old, I am between all the college graduate age PCVs and the retired age PCVs. Luckily, I am about the same age as most of my counterparts at site and it is interesting to talk to Thai women from my generation about their lives, goals, and challenges.(ethnicity) I mainly am made aware of my ethnicity by people complementing me on my pale caucasian skin. Traditionally, Thai people go to great lengths to lighten their skin. I tend to use these occasions as teachable moments by commenting on how beautiful I think the person (with darker skin) is, and telling them that many white people go to tanning salons in America to darken their skin.(religion) As a “confirmed atheist” it has been interesting to live in a deeply spiritual country with a state sponsored religion. Thai culture and religion are inseparable, and it is impossible to explore one without the other. Visiting Buddhist temples with my host family and meditating with my students is an important part of my life here and I wouldn’t change a thing about it.(sexuality) I am a boringly-heteronormative straight woman. That said it has been fascinating to observe how homosexual relationships and identities are both more AND less accepted here. As long as one partner assumes a masculine role and the other a feminine role, Thai culture is rather accepting, going by my community’s actions.(ability) I am (so far) rather able-bodied, but some of my students are not. Making sure that class activities are inclusive of them is an ongoing priority.(cultural) As the daughter of South African immigrants living in rural Texas, I have always been familiar with “otherness”. Moving from Texas, to New Zealand, to Georgia, then California, with plenty of travel mixed in, I have come to see myself as a “cultural mutt” and that identity has served me well in Thailand. Being treated as “other” is not a new sensation, and my comfort with it has allowed me to succeed in areas I might have been reluctant to push myself in.(upbringing) I have been raised by two wonderful parents that have left me free to decide on my career and life path while pushing me to excel at whatever I’ve pursued. Their support has extended to my time in the Peace Corps. In fact, I talk to my mother more often now than when I was living in the US!(economic status) I was not rich working in America, but I lived a comfortable life. While the people of my region are, on average, less wealthy, they seem to live happy lives. My experience living in rural Thailand has caused me to re-examine my own material based life. 1 What do you enjoy about your specific sector? 2 I often joke that the Youth in Development sector is the Peace Corps’ “choose your own adventure” program, because volunteers are empowered to independently tailor their work to their community’s needs and their own abilities. I applied for this sector specifically for this reason. It has been amazing to work with local youth, not just as another teacher, but as someone that wants to create constructive fun and informal learning activities outside of the classroom. Working with young adults has made me feel more youthful and being allowed to think outside the box to address challenges has been a valuable experience, responsibility, and privilege. 3 How do you spend your days in your community? 4 I wake up around 6 am in my apartment. Mornings entail coffee, showering, breakfast, organizing my material for class, more coffee, and my daily phone call with my husband back in America. My mornings and afternoons are spent at one of my four schools where I facilitate life skills activities, assist English classes, and lead after-school groups. Almost every evening, I go for a run around my town’s lake, fulfilling a New Years resolution. A quick shower, then it’s off to my host family’s house where we eat together, talk about upcoming events, and I help with English homework or just play football (ahem- soccer) with the neighborhood kids. I end my day in bed with my iPad answering emails and maaaaybe catching a little Netflix. 5 What are your favorite things about your country of service? 6 I applied to be placed in Thailand because I knew it was very different from Western culture and its people are known for their friendliness. Both have turned out to be true. Thai culture is so warm and communal. I can’t ride my bike down the street without being stopped to chat, offered a beer or food, or drawn into a game with children. I love Thai food, the mix of spicy, sweet, sour, and saltiness. Being a vegetarian was a bit of a challenge at first, but there is still so much food to try! The language has been a challenge, without anything in common with the Western languages I have studied in the past, but I am proud of my growing linguistic abilities. The mix of ancient customs and modernity is fascinating, and it is a privilege to be here at this moment in time, when Thailand is learning to balance tradition with a rapidly expanding modern economy. 7 What has been your biggest success during service? 8 There have been several high points so far in my service, but the film club is the one I am most proud of. As pre-existing club, it presented a challenge in that I needed to adapt myself to the group’s needs and find ways to sustainably grow the club’s capacity. Having a committed co-teacher and engaged students was the biggest success factor. 9 What has been your biggest challenge? What did you learn from it? 10 By far, the biggest challenge is being separated from my husband. I wish he was here to share in the sorrows and the victories that make up serving in the Peace Corp. However, we have both grown a tremendous amount this last year, becoming stronger individuals, and our FaceTime calls have become a daily focused one-on-one moment that we didn’t alway make enough time for living together. When we started this journey, we thought we could make it work, now we know we can make it work. 11 Who has impacted your service positively? 12 I was “adopted” by my host family, and they have kept me clued in to community events and turned lonely evenings into family time. My host father is my first call when help is needed. My host mother is always inviting me to social events. And their 10 year old daughter has become the little sister I never had.10.How do you work with your counterpart/s?I have a local government counterpart and co-teachers at each school that are essential to my work. My government counterpart and I work together on community wide projects (a summer English and life skills camp, anti-drug events, etc), while I co-facilitate school based activities with my individual teachers (an English-language science fair, the film club, etc).11.How has your service changed you? Has Peace Corps benefitted you professionally or changed your career path?Peace Corps is a fulcrum around which I am changing career goals. Working with people from a different culture, being involved with youth, challenging myself to grow linguistically, skill-wise, culturally, and to be more of a change agent has been rough at times but I remind myself that I applied not in spite of it being difficult, but because it’s difficult. My service is just the beginning of a pivot to a more public service focused career, and I am constantly reminding myself of the incredible opportunity my country has given me: the training, staff, living stipend, future career options, and support are considerable, and I am driven to make the most of this chapter in my life and the chance Peace Corps took inviting a reality TV show-maker to development work.12.What do you wish Americans knew about your country of service?Thailand, despite its comparatively small size, has a degree of diversity that rivals the US. From the majority Muslim southern region filled with beaches, to hill tribes living in the mountains of the North, the people of Isaan with their distinctive indigo clothing, and the cosmopolitan metropolis of Bangkok, Thailand is defined by its wide range of foods, clothing, traditions, languages, and ethnicities.13.What do you hope to teach your host country about Americans? What perceptions are you working to change about Americans in your country of service?There is a belief that all Americans are white, tall, Christian, and outspoken. While I might fit a couple of these stereotypes, I have worked hard to expand my community’s ideas around Americans. American holidays like Thanksgiving and Independence Day have been amazing to share with my students and have served as teaching moments. I hope to leave my community with a deeper understanding of the American people and their culture.14.Anything else to share?I will close by expressing my gratitude to my fellow Americans for this incredible opportunity. I am humbly doing my best to make the most of it for my Thai community, myself, and my home country. I consider myself very lucky to be given the chance to change my career and life outlook while serving others.

 Hidden on the far side of my community’s beautiful lake lies a small bpratom school. With only 107 students and 7 teachers, it is a tight nit and self reliant campus by necessity. When I was asked to help organize an English camp there, doubts sprung to mind immediately. Only one of the teachers spoke English fluently. The school has no budget for staff and food for a weekend of activities. They wanted to host the camp in a few weeks, not months. And the event banner? How can we have a camp without a banner!?
But then I remembered that I was in the company of a small group of resourceful educators and energetic students- we would make this work together. We assigned activities to teachers based on their English level and practiced after school for several days until everyone was ready. The date was moved to a school day, so the staff and food would be there anyway. A few weeks was all it took to recruit and prepare student leaders to help run everything. The banner was dismissed as unnecessary. We had turned problems into English lessons for the teachers and leadership opportunities for the older students.
 The morning of the camp was nerve-wracking but exciting. Name tags prepared, the PA system checked, anxious youth leaders reviewing the schedule, and one Peace Corps volunteer wondering what she got herself into! But then the activities started and the camp… worked! A shy young teacher revealed her hidden MC skills leading the whole school through warmup activities. Student leaders took responsibility for their groups, leading team cheers and guiding other students to activity spots. Teachers who had previously told me they couldn’t speak English led activities confidently. Everyone had fun improving their English skills and then, about halfway through the day, I spotted it- A full colour banner proudly proclaiming our school’s camp hanging above the stage!
Success can be contagious- two of my other schools are eagerly working with me to plan their own whole school camps now!

A SMALL TRIP 18/12/2018
 Life has been work, work, work. Daily classes, organizing camps in my town and other places for youth, working on video projects for Peace Corps Thailand leadership, and dozens of other tasks all pile up.
This weekend, I decided to take a mini vacation! First stop, Udon Thani, a little over an hour away, by bus. There, I met up with 8 other Peace Corps volunteers. We ate lots of Western food, partied hard, and visited the “Red Lotus Sea”, which was in full bloom. The lake was massive, dotted with small islands hiding shrines, Budda statues, and secrets. Our group traveled by small boat until suddenly we rounded a tiny island and found ourselves surrounded by countless red flowers standing out of the water as far as the eye could see. A hush fell over everyone as we floated in the middle of the unending flowers.
Later, after returning to the hostel and checking out, I caught a bus to another PCV’s town. The next day she, her counterpart teacher, and I traveled alongside the Mekong River in a big pickup truck. First stop was in Mukdahan, at a park over looking the river with Laos in the distance. A large statue of the mythical snake, Naga, had been built for visitors to pass under for good luck, food vendors had a bustling business setup, and stairs led down to a rocky outcrop butting into the fast moving water. 
The next stop was, unexpectedly, a Christian church in the small community of Songkon. It was a shrine to several Christian martyrs that were killed by Laotian Buddhist nationalists during the Indo-Chinese war. An interesting bit of history, but I found myself enthralled by the blending of Thai religious expression with the Catholic Church. Statues of Jesus and Mary with traditional asian flower garlands, worshippers and nuns bowing on their knees before the crucifix (instead of the usual Buddha figure). The preserved traditional house of the martyrs. European and Thai religious architecture side by side. 
Our final stop was a massive temple complex in That Phanom. One of seven sites Buddha travelled to and taught at, it is on the list of holy sites all able Buddhists are expected to visit.
The day ended back at my friend’s home, where she prepared a family recipe (dosa) from India and we settled down for the night. Tomorrow it’s “back to work”!

FILM CAMP 24/7/2018
 My town high school’s film club is one of the best in Thailand, and they have the awards to prove it! The group had written, shot, and edited dozens of comedy, drama, horror, and documentary films before I arrived in their community. With a background in film and television myself, I immediately knew that I was in the presence of fellow artists.
One of the biggest challenges they face is recruiting incoming high school students to their highly creative but technically challenging club. I planted the seed of an idea: what if there was a way to introduce younger students to the idea of filmmaking before they came to high school? The next week, I met with them during the school’s “club hour” to discover that they had developed over the weekend the idea of hosting a filmmaking camp for students in the community. Right from the start, this was to be led by the club members, with their supervising teacher and I in purely supporting rolls. I knew they could do it, but when schools from neighboring towns started hearing about the camp, they wanted in as well. What had originally been a camp meant for 25-30 students, ballooned into a 64 person overnight event, complete with visiting teachers interested in starting film clubs in their own towns. Could such a small group of high school students manage this?
Luckily, a camp is a lot like a film shoot: supplies must be arraigned (parents cooking massive amounts of food), a schedule is essential, and every detail needs to be thought out well in advance. I watched as the young men and women sorted arriving students into groups, each led by a club member, gave instructions, and got to work facilitating each team through writing scripts, choosing locations, and filming their stories. That night, nobody slept as each team edited their masterpieces to be ready for the next day. I was surprised at the energy shown by the camp participants, but their enthusiasm about getting to make and share their own stories was infectious!
The next morning, we started with some leadership and team-building exercises before getting to the main event: our community’s first ever student film festival! Choosing a winner was hard- every team had worked tirelessly to plan, shoot, and edit their films. But every participant left with knowledge that they can be artists and story tellers. Visiting teachers rushed the club teacher, asking about starting film clubs in their communities. And my students, tired from running the camp almost completely by themselves, caught their breath after an exhilarating two days. Something tells me that they won’t have any problem attracting new members next term!

 Where to start…
The end of PST (pre-service training) was more emotional that I had anticipated. After a short ten weeks, I had friendships that felt like they had been years in the making- Yannet and I bonded over missing our partners- her girlfriend of 12 years and my Hunter. Bryan, whom I found to be a kindred go-it-alone introvert spirit. Triveni, a woman that had grown up in India before becoming a frikin-laser-scientist! Chelsea, a quiet 22 year old from Seattle with a background in physical therapy, became a very close friend and we spent hours listening to Taylor Swift (I know, I know, stop shaking your head at me!), making class plans, drinking Chaang beer, and shooting a music video featuring students from our practicum school. It didn’t fully register that we were all separating until after we swore in and the announcement was made that we should sit with our host site counterparts (not with other volunteers). “But, wait, my friends are over there! Who are these new people that I can’t communicate very well with?” I wanted to ask. But, before I knew it, I was in a van traveling 9 hours, with people I had just met, and couldn’t talk to very well, to a far off region close to the Laos border. “What have I done?” kept repeating over and over in my head. My new counterparts and I were friendly, but we were all still trying to sort expectations out. It was a quiet ride to my new home…
“You maybe surprised to find that your closest friends at site are children”- this piece of advice, offered offhandedly by an about-to-finish volunteer, has proven to be very accurate so far. Kids don’t mind that your conversational skills are shallow, they want to learn English, and (in a country that is very focused on respecting older people) they are drawn to the tall foreign woman that listens to them, insists that the girls get to play footsal (soccer) as well, and wants know about their lives (rather than order them around like adults usually do here). How much human potential is lost by simply ignoring people when they are in their most formative years? I am not perfect, I not a saint by a long shot, but I know why I’m here, and I intend to do it to the best of my ability.
I really like my family: my “host father” manages to maintain a laid back demeanor even though he has two children, a family farm, he serves as the vice mayor, cooks most meals, and has taken on a foreign volunteer to top it all of. “Mai bpen rai” (no big deal) seems to be his favorite line. My “host mother” always has a big smile, manages to be everywhere in town simultaneously somehow, and really doesn’t think I’m drinking enough alcohol (despite the fact that we were taught during PST that alcohol is considered to be inappropriate for woman in Thailand).
Rural Isan is laid back- maybe a little too laid back. I’m trying to organize an “English Camp” (they are popular here), and people often take a full day to respond to emails/txts. I realized that I was “losing face” getting visibly irritated over delays, and have learned to just work on several projects at once so that there is something to do. On day two, I came across a room at the local government office full of stacked desks and abandoned PCs- now it’s a internet connected computer lab. I’ve found a local teacher- a retired fitness enthusiast who speaks 4 languages and spent several years living in Canada (I had to stop myself from laughing when he said “aboot” one day). I’m in the process of negotiating a rate for an apartment, and on the lookout for a cat to adopt. School will start in mid-May and then the reeeeeeeeal work begins…
All my love,Alice

THE NORMAL 24/7/2018
 Nescafe “coffee”, nodding in agreement when I really don’t understand, major setbacks,a chorus of small victories, motorcycles with child seats (and no helmets), the flu,learning to be okay with awkward moments, staring old people,happy waving youth, fighting off dogs from a moving bicycle, puppies,and the unbelievable joy of finding a shop that sells real grilled cheese sandwiches in a land that is lactose intolerant
 7 weeks have flown by and I’ve been too busy to properly notice. I’ve written this follow-on email/journal/note-to-the-void a couple times before starting over. Life is complicated- and that’s not a bad thing.
We were told on the first day by PC staff that the first 2-3 weeks is “The Tourist” phase of transition- when everything is new, fascinating, and we are euphoric about our host country. Letters get sent home, photos are snapped left and right, and new trainees revel in the majesty of Thailand. With 129 previous groups having served, the staff knew this phase well.

The next phase was called “The Crash”. When the reality of our situations started creeping in, our surroundings loose their shine, and we start to fixate on what we DON”T have anymore- loved ones, cars, comfort foods, control, personal space, self agency over day to day matters, old jobs, control, nice weather, people that speak English… control. The staff was just as right about this as the previous phase. Smiles started to fade, and the ETs (early terminations) started happening left and right. A dozen people, all who had gone through the long, hard, and very competitive process of getting here, left. Sometimes confiding in a few people the night before; often just suddenly missing from training- whisked away without telling a soul other than the staff who quietly booked return tickets for them. When a fellow trainee that I had been very close to departed, it threw me into a tail spin. I barely held it together through class but by the time I made it home I was sobbing. My host family, native Thais not used to displays of emotion, did not know how to react. When one laughed at my explanation for being so sad, I ran into my room, unable to face them. This was my “The Crash” moment and, in that moment, I wanted to go home.

The next phase is called- wait for it… “The Normal”, and it has started to arrive in my life… I think. One stops looking through the rose-coloured glasses of the Tourist, and accepts the shortcomings and failings of their adopted country. I still get stares, but realize that it’s not personal. Dogs still aggressively chase my bike, but I carry a large pole and have lost my fear of using it when necessary. I’m learning to do a new job, but I don’t have to abandon old skills (check out my new music video at ). The language is hard, but I’ve made more progress that I ever though possible already. I can’t be held by my husband, but we’re learning to support each other in new ways. A friend quit, but I discovered that I had a couple of other awesome people in my life. Rice all the time isn’t so bad. Communication with my host family is still difficult, but enjoy each others’ company anyway. I was hospitalized with acute influenza…
 but then I got better.
Take care and keep moving forward with love,Alice
P.S. I found ANOTHER Lay’s potato chips flavour!

 The charm of our training community has not worn off just yet. Tough language lessons occupy the day. The tonality of Thai is a challenge (Kao can be “them” or “rice” depending on emphasis/tone, for instance), but our instructors are patient and persistent. 
Going to the night market and bartering for a new top and skirt was fun (“nueng roy baaht, daai mai?”), telling the cook at a sidewalk food spot that I was a vegetable (“di-chan pak ka”) was embarrassing though! For the first time since early childhood, I am experiencing being illiterate, and unable to to communicate complex ideas. It has been humbling to say the least and has had me thinking about some of my former citizenship students’ struggles with English, and the frustration I felt from time to time with them.
It is common for these street-side eateries to sell you the raw ingredients from their stand and then let you cook it on a table-top gas stove. Tofu and bok choi with hot fish sauce is my current food obsession, second only to seaweed flavored Lays potato chips.
Thai people have small temples and “spirit houses” everywhere, with offerings of incense, flowers, and soft drinks continuously replenished. Buddhist monks in turmeric-dyed robes walk in the morning and stop to receive offerings from rich and poor alike. I visited a large temple with another volunteer this evening- a massive dragon stood over the complex of ornate pavilions, intricate spirit wheels, bright red lanterns, auspicious gilded signs, and carved towers- but it was the weathered shack, maintained by a few old men in rags, with a 20 foot gleaming Buddha inside we discovered on the walk back to the hotel that registered as a truly holy place. We lit the incense we were handed, bowed in silence, and wai’ed to the caretakers. It was… never mind- I could never do the moment justice.
Also, Thai romance novels have even more ridiculous covers than in America. It’s enough to make one double down on learning the language and script! 😛
Tomorrow we get our bikes!
P.S. My trip to the hospital has resulted in a sinus infection diagnosis (after a head X-ray and flu test that involved sticking a swab waaaaay up my nose). The waiting room chairs might have been worn and the equipment well used, but the staff was quick and very professional. Thumbs up for semi-rural hospitals in Thailand!

 Our hotel is sprawling (conference center, coffee shop, two different swimming pools, traditional art and travellers’ shrines everywhere). Other than fried eggs, breakfast is an entirely different affair compared to home- papaya salad, fried rice, pork dumpling soup are all morning staples here.
Yesterday was the  official start of pre service training (PST) and the day was filled with sessions on PC rules (don’t ride on a motorcycle, don’t leave site without permission, the mere rumor of drug use is grounds for early termination, etc), health info (how to use rehydration salts, avoiding food-borne sickness and parasites, which snake bites can cause paralysis, diarrhea, diarrhea, diarrhea), and the logistics of the next few months. The first day was capped off with a big celebratory dinner and karaoke party. I was pulled on stage for ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” (thankfully there is no video evidence of this moment), but the highlight was the entire PC Thailand staff (including the country director, a former ambassador twice over) taking the stage to sing the Thai pop hit “I Love You Too Much” (official music video- ). Afterwards, a miracle happened: I slept though the night without waking up at 3- JETLAG DEFEATED!!!

Today was full of interviews to determine our site placements and medical intake, and the first bits of language training. We ended the day with a challenge- rather than feeding us dinner at the hotel, we had to wander out into the community and buy our own meals (with the training allowance we received yesterday), speaking only Thai. Traffic everywhere, crossing rickety bridges, thousands of birds roosting in the trees overhead, signs for “fish maw soup”, “stir fried chicken feet” and other delicacies, every pedestrian warmly greeting us individually (which slowed our walk down substantially), and finally a big feast for the 9 people in our group, which along with a substantial amount of beer for the table, worked out to just over 3 US dollars per person!
Tomorrow there is more training, more testing, and preparation for the local festival (which will feature monks, dancers, and a procession of elephants in full war regalia). I can’t wait!
 Humidity, heat, small shrines tucked into unexpected places, rice for breakfast, night walks to the Seven-11 a few blocks away, jetlag, jetlag, jetlag- The first 24 hours at the hotel  have been dee maak maak (very good). Training begins in earnest this morning and I can’t wait! My hotel roommate is very set on acclimating to the climate quickly, but leaving the room AC off and opening a window at night has not worked out, as I awoke covered in mosquito bites to the sounds of traffic at 3 AM. A talk is in order to come to some sort of compromise before the next night. A small concern in a sea of wonderfulness- I am truly in love with Thailand so far!

 Fourteen sleepless hours hanging over the Pacific Ocean. 
Around hour four I give up and order a whiskey and coke- If I’m going to be cursed with anxious insomnia, I might as well have something to sip on. The hostesses of Korean Air are almost too helpful, or I’ve just become too used to discount American Airlines! I watch the plane tracker show the pilot making a southward turn as we approach the Korean Peninsula- a reminder that North Korea airspace is no go land. We keep our distance before cutting across South Korea. Well organized villages and snowy mountains replace the featureless ocean. 
Touching down in Incheon (just east of Seoul) makes our arrival in the continent official. Eager to have some Korean food I step off the plane airway to be greeted by Dunkin Donuts, Jamba Juice, Burger King, and other American food outlets. Not that it mattered- I possessed a couple of American  Dollars, several thousand Thai Baht, and a debit card that I had forgotten to authorize for use in Korea. 
Soon we’re back on a smaller plane heading towards Bangkok, skirting Chinese airspace. We pass over Taipei, so bright that one can see the glow in the sky well before and after we fly past. Laos and Cambodia are the opposite- large swaths of land without a light to see. I imaging jungles 40,000 feet below hiding lost cities and treasures. And then we’re back over bright lights as Bangkok comes into view and we touch down around 3 AM local time. I have not slept a wink across over 20 hours of flight time (and several hours of delays), and I’m sure that I stink something feirce-there is only so much deodorant and gold bond can do to cover up stink. Dreams of a warm shower, scratch that- I’ll settle for a cold shower, scratch that- I’ll settle for a bucket half full of water (the “traditional” bath for PCV’s in many countries). We’re met at the gate by a man holding a sign with a PC logo on it. I give my best attempt at saying “Sawatdee ka!”; he smiles and returns the greeting- successful communication accomplished! 
We are herded into the immigration line reserved for dignitaries, government officials, and Buddhist monks- a reminder of the honor, and expectations, we will have to live up to here. After customs, a gaggle of PC country staff greet us with orchid lais, hand out hotel room assignments, and check people off the master list. The moment is surreal: sleep exhaustion, excitement, and interesting sculptures all mix together. The country director and I chat, but I can’t tell you if anything coherent came out of my mouth. 
The call goes out, everyone is accounted for, so we head to the charter busses that will take us two hours to Peace Corps Thailand headquarter, and most importantly, the hotel…

IN FLIGHT 23/7/2018
 Hunter and I lugged the heavy baggage into the lobby and I stepped up to the waiting front desk clerk. “Checking in?” My heart quickened as he scanned his screen. Was I really accepted when so many people with development and volunteer experience were turned away? Did I actually make it though the medical clearance process after dozens of doctor appointments and what had to be, collectively, quarts of blood draws for tests. Half a dozen new fillings and a pair of dental crowns? Personal essays? Legal clearances? Visa paperwork? I stopped breathing as the clerk looked down his list, wondering if this had all been a misunderstanding on my part, that I wasn’t actually on the list of room reservations for Peace Corps trainees. If he couldn’t find it, would I just shrug and go home to unpack my bags? 
“Looks like we have you in room 220.” Hunter and I exchanged glances- this was really happening.
I soon found myself alone, waiting by the banquet room marked “Peace Corps Thailand”- no, not alone- others, with big suitcases and the same air of anxiety mixed with excitement started to collect in bunches. “This is happening!”, “where are you from”, “I can’t believe it!”
The day of staging activities was an emotional experience. I almost found myself crying when the facilitator reminded us that, for many, this was the first time we were in a room where no one else doubted or questioned the choice we had made. I looked around the room and knew this was going to be a new type of family for me. One with a couple hundred siblings in the same country we were heading to, and thousands worldwide. Afterwards, a dozen of us went to dinner at a brew pub and had our last supper of American food. We could barely remember each others’ names, but already we felt like long lost friends.
I rushed back to the hotel to meet Hunter and Leslie (who had flown in a couple of hours previously from London), and we snuck away for one last precious hour together over ice cream stuffed donuts (which were just as amazing as they sound). Back at the hotel, Leslie and I hugged goodbye at the car before Hunter walked me back to the entrance. A final moment- “I love you” whispered in each others’ ears, afraid that if we spoke the words loud enough for others to hear, it might bring the emotional scaffolding we had spent the last year building around our relationship crashing down. 
He turned and walked back into the darkness. I stood there in the dim light, spilling from the brightly lit lobby, frozen, watching him leave, afraid to move for fear that I would run after him. Finally, I turned and walked back into the hotel.
A restless night was brought to a mercifully short end by the earliness of our call time downstairs. Everyone, 70’ish in all, stood milling around, excitement and anticipation almost visible in the air. Loading luggage into buses; the short drive to LAX; familiar landmarks buzzing by for the last time (relatively speaking) already growing alien and distant. I recalled the hundreds of times I had, during my stint as a Lyft driver, driven this same route. Prohibited from driving for the next two years, my old gig seemed unbelievable, suddenly. 
Fears of overweight baggage fees and TSA worries were quickly banished as we made our way quickly to the gate. The plane, a double decker Airbus super jumbo, pulled up to the gate. It occurred to me that, with a 399 passenger capacity, this plane might carry more people than the village I was destined to live in for the next two years. Somewhere, on the other side of the world, a community had requested help, and a placment officer in DC had decided that I fit the bill. As I sat, 38,000 feet above the Pacific picking beef out of my dinner tray, I hoped that officer was right, that the pain and loneliness my husband and I would experience, the monsoons, giant venomous caterpillars (don’t look it up), loss of personal freedom, and crippling anticipation anxiety would be worth it, and knowing that the answer to that question was up to me.

(Somewhere over the Pacific just south of Alaska)