Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Friends Corner AIDS Training

“It was done through official channels, and half-heartedly. What they’re short on is imagination. Officialdom can never cope with something really catastrophic. And the remedial measures they think up are hardly adequate for the common cold. If we let them carry on like this they’ll soon be dead, and so shall we.”
- Albert Camus, The Plague

I always like to start these logs off on a pleasant note. After reading The Plague and the latest Newsweek, I feel like stabbing at my eyeballs with chopsticks, so I’ll try to keep this light.

The national response to AIDS in Thailand, in terms of preventative education, is something like Camus would expect- half-hearted and inadequate. It’s a serious need in my own village, where there are plenty of health professionals interested and motivated to work with AIDS, but without the support from schools and government sources.

When my counterpart, Tuum, asked me if I could help her design a project to motivate youths to take a more active role in educating their peers, I jumped at the chance. Her idea was to ask 39 youth volunteers (3 per village) to train their peers and villagers in the areas of sex, AIDS, and life skills. The entire project would take place over the next year, and the initial training was last month at the Army Barracks of Khon Kaen. Here’s what happened…

Whenever any kind of official event takes place in Thailand, the couch people are there. They come alone, or in twos and threes, but never more than can sit on two cheap, plastic loveseats. I have been at official events in every major region of Thailand except the South, and have seen the exact same couches every time. While everyone else sits either on cheap chairs or the floor, the same blue grey couches with accompanying black, glass coffee table are present everywhere. Sporting the blue-grey scheme of my old Ford Tempo, these couches offer the greatest amount of class that 1,500 baht can buy.

Who sits at the couches? Not you.

If you want an elected official, principal, senator, parliament member, policeman, doctor, fundraiser, etc. to come to your event, you better have the couch set. And if you really want to show them how appreciative you are of their presence, here’s a tip- why not send the white guy over there to serve them cold water? Don’t forget the coaster.

The lives of couch people are like their seat, which is to say, comfortable. The uniform of the couch people is the formal Thai shirt. It’s a short-sleeve shirt that tries to be a suit- the result of trying to tailor a shirt of class, formality, and expense in the hottest climate imaginable. Each and every couch persons’ hands are adorned with gold watches and massive, tacky rings that can be redeemed at the Jersey shore with 2,000 points of coupons from Skee-ball. But in Thailand, tacky equals flashy equals wealthy equals respect. And it’s this select group of people who you need to open your project, or for that matter, to have a project at all.

Usually rolling into the event fifteen minutes to an hour late, they can be counted on to take up an inordinate amount of time opening your event. Entire mornings of scheduled education have been lost to the couch person with a microphone. The spectators don’t try very hard to hide their inattention, either, usually yawning or making telephone calls during the introduction. Despite not understanding most of what he’s saying, I’ll try to pay attention by watching the couch person’s mouth moving incessantly, accomplishing little. I find the experience very similar to when I used to feed my dog peanut butter.

At my training the President of my TAO was able to come and offer his thoughts of our project. Thirty minutes late, shirt, rings and formality strolled through the doors of the Army Barracks meeting hall.

“We don’t have any couches,” said Tuum, “or a microphone.” I could see from her face that she honestly didn’t know what was going to happen.

In the next fifteen minutes, the President of my TAO went on to shock the entire audience by speaking succinctly, informatively, and let’s even go as far as to say eloquently, about our project. Unplugged! Students turned off their telephones, no one fell asleep, and we started our training on time. This was turning out to be a great training.

To make the students more comfortable talking about sex in an unfamiliar environment, Tuum began the first day with a session on slang. She gathered them in teams to create an all-inclusive list of sex slang words. Some of my Thai friends from the TAO and I made our own list, and in a dashing display of linguistic ability (or emotional immaturity), my list was the longest and probably the most offensive. Certainly a proud day for me and my family.

Over the next two days, the community nursing staff gave a training written mostly by another PCV’s counterpart, and a Thai NGO called Teen Path. They incorporated games and singing to keep the event upbeat. As essential as the couches to any event are the drums and tambourine, which was quickly usurped by a nurse who seemed genuinely disappointed I was playing it incorrectly.

The last day of the training was spent in groups talking about community networking. In the future, these 39 student leaders will have offices next to the community nursing stations in their villages. What services would they like to provide there? How would they like to train their peers? What other organizations could they collaborate with? The results of these sessions were mostly what we expected. The leaders all had a pretty good idea what they wanted out of the project, and what they needed to make it successful. An interesting surprise we got was when two different groups asked to be able to give information on abortions, and where they can be performed. Abortion is illegal in Thailand, and my nurses are strictly against the practice, so this created somewhat of a stir. “What do you think we should do,” the nurses asked me the next day. “I have no opinion,” I answered. But I will certainly enjoy writing my completion report and telling the US gov’t that I just created a volunteer group that is handing out condoms and wants to advertise abortions. Anyone want to bet this is my last project?

One of the advantages of training at an Army base is that we were granted access to a trial of the obstacle course. We separated into groups and made our way to our respective stations, ranging from the log walk to the rope swing. We negotiated obstacles, laughing and enjoying ourselves, me hoping all the while that around the next corner would be Nitro or Blade waiting for me behind a tennis-ball machine gun. Then, the smiles just leaving our faces after the previous activity, we came to the barbed wire mud pit.

Apparently the soldiers didn’t see anything odd, or maybe even sadistic, about making students crawl upside-down through a mud course covered with barbed wire. While I stood by taking pictures, amazed that this was even an option, the kids made it through, one by one, hating life for a few minutes. "There are red everywhere!" they cried. After that obstacle was completed, we were told that the remaining five obstacles were closed down. Apparently the flamethrower evasion drill was closed for repairs.

The camp’s success remains to be seen in that the future village trainings are really our measure of effectiveness. Hopefully the student leaders picked up enough during the three days to help their friends understand AIDS and feel more comfortable about sex education in general. The training itself was similar to what students would receive if they were actually subjected to AIDS education in Thai schools. Hopefully the hospital, TAO, and schools can start to work together more frequently in this area. Officialdom, despite Camus’ caution, is our only option in PC Thailand, but thankfully, imagination is one of the only tools PCVs come equipped with.

P.S.- more about PC Thailand’s work with HIV/AIDS can be viewed at www.pcthailandgigs.org, a resource website we created for PCVs in Thailand and other PC countries.

All the photos from this event can be viewed at my flickr page.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Phuket Vacation, One Year Mark

“There are times when suddenly you realize you’re nearer the end than the beginning. And you wonder, and ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents. What difference your being there at any time made to anything. Or if it made any difference at all, really. Particularly in comparison with other men’s careers. I don’t know if that kind of thinking is very healthy, but I must admit I’ve had some thoughts on those lines from time to time.”
- Colonel Nicholson, The Bridge on the River Kwai

I got on the night train from Khon Kaen to Bangkok last month, after having a few beers to make the noisy sleeper car more bearable. I usually only go to Bangkok for HIV meetings or doctor’s appointments. But this week was my Mid-Service conference, and it finally hit me as I tried to fall asleep on the train. I have less than one year left in this place.

The quote above is from the end of the Bridge on the River Kwai, and struck a chord with me because I can relate to every one of those sentiments. Before leaving for Haiti, we had a training conference to introduce us to the Peace Corps, and the facilitator asked each of us to draw a picture of our deepest fear of our upcoming service. I drew a stick figure with a butt-chin and a very large question mark above his head. That was me, on the day I wake up, look around, and ask myself, “What the hell am I doing here?” I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to get past that feeling, or that day.

During times like those, it helps to have a push and a pull as your reasons for coming here in the first place. Escapism and wanderlust are two of my favorite pastimes, but this time, I had chosen to come to Thailand specifically. Student loans and election results aren’t enough to keep you in the Peace Corps. Well maybe student loans. But thankfully I have Thailand pulling me in, my community, work, and friends, and over a month of vacation days to spend in the next year.

The most important reason for me to attend the mid-service conference was to ask my program manager which race track the horses would be running at that Sunday. After a week of reflection, we all needed to go out and do something stupid. Before our beach expedition began, the sport of Kings was just the distraction we needed.

“I’m talking quick bucks. I’m talking magic money. I’m talking sick piles of money. I’m talking lay on your bed in your Vegas room, throw the money in the air and dance as it showers down upon you money. I’m talking frosted-glass limo money. I’m talking big cowboy hat and silver turquoise buckle money. I’m talking GAMBLING.”
- Tom Wilsonberg, Home Movies

Six of us pried ourselves out of our cab, and made our way towards the track, stopping only for binoculars and 7-11 hotdogs. Surprisingly large, all three tiers of the stadium were filled with Thai men, all studying programs, hoping to pick the pony that would let them move back to Isaan. What was even more amazing was that none of them were drinking. I still can’t believe this last sentence; I’m tempted to erase it.

In America, I’d taken quite a liking to horse racing, and had gotten good enough to usually pay for my beer and a hot dog at the end of the day. The trick for me was to pick out the horses in the race that didn’t have a chance to win, and then bet on whatever remaining horse had the longest odds. Well here there are fourteen horses per race, so I was overmatched and didn’t pick a correct one all day. Even in Thailand, there really is nothing like that feeling when your horse is rounding the track, racing down the homestretch. It’s a great social sport, too, as it doesn’t pit fans against each other. It’s everyone against the track.

The first time I went up to the betting window, I was nervous about holding up the line. We only had a few minutes left to bet, and I had noticed a horde of impatient Thais behind me trying to beat the bell.

“Next race, Horse number twelve, two hundred baht, to win,” I said to the already snickering ladies taking the bets. Great, I think they understood. I can get out of here before they run me over.

“You speak Thai. Do you like Thailand?” she asks me.

“Yes I do,” I countered, “Horse number twelve to win, 200 baht please.”

“Is Thailand hot?”

I could already hear the collecting grunting of thirty or so men behind me, swatting flies away with their programs, wondering what the hell was holding the line up. “Thailand is very hot,” I answered.

“Are you married yet?”

“No I am not.” Please print the ticket before I get stampeded. “Horse number twelve, to win, 200 baht please.”

“Do you like Thai people? Are Thais hospitable?”

It was starting to get scary. She was protected by bulletproof plastic in her little hut. The fact that no one was drinking made me realize how serious this was to them. “What’s going on? What’s the problem up there?”

“Can you eat spicy food?”

“Yes I can, I ordered some food already and it’s getting cold. Please let me bet 200 baht on horse number twelve for the next race.”

“Sure, here’s your ticket. Good luck.”

Ding, ding, ding.

“Salt water is good for the mental abrasions one inevitably acquires on land.”
Jimmy Buffet, A Pirate Looks at Fifty

It’s funny, the Thailand on the front of the welcome booklet is not the one that I’ve been living in the past 17 months. I remember drooling over the photo of palm trees and white-sand beaches, thinking I had won the lottery. Then I came and got to experience life on a plateau. A plateau is a hideous, waste of clay. A plateau is where God got lazy. But a plateau is not without irony- constantly hot and dry, flash floods appear at the first drop of unexpected rain. It was high time that I set out to go see those crystal clear waters and jagged mountains of Southern Thailand.

We decided to go to the ultimate tourist beach of Thailand- Phuket. 90% of the beautiful pictures and tourist tsunami stories we associate with Thailand come from Phuket. The beaches were bare, no tourists at all made their way to our portion of the island. And since Thais are scared to death of the sun, we basically had the beach to ourselves every day for two weeks.

For me, vacationing is about relaxing. Having any kind of schedule is anathema. So for us to get all the fun we had in mind out of our systems, we needed a couple of weeks to let them happen at their own pace. I went down with two other guys, and it was a friend of a friend of a friend that lent us the house we stayed in, that made those two weeks affordable.

There were plenty of days that blended into each other, spent sitting at the beach, reading a book, daydreaming. Plenty of time spent pondering how strange this landscape was, the perfectly straight horizon on the sea interrupted by this vertical monstrosity of rocks. How did they get there? They look like they dropped out of the sky, or like giant molars covered with moss.

On the second to last day, we broke the bank and went on a snorkeling trip. Well worth the money. We sped from coral hotspot to famous beaches all day, with 30 minute snorkeling opportunities at each stop. It felt like swimming around in a giant, stuffed aquarium. Fish swam all around us, colorful coral swayed with the tides below us, while we swam around in euphoria, the threat of jellyfish our only worry. We laid out on the beach from “The Beach”. The movie is much more believable while you’re on the island, because you can’t help but fantasize about staying there, and thinking of how you could pull it off.

After the vacation was over, we were all ready to move on. For two of us, it was back to our sites and a new beginning: our final year. For my other friend, it was goodbye. He had served out his two years, plus one year of extension, and was headed back home to the States.

This next year it will be tough to keep my mind in Isaan. I finally have the language ability to get work done at my site, yet will undoubtedly be distracted by the thought of starting anew wherever I land next. For the first time in my service, I’ve stopped counting up when thinking of how long I’ve been here, but started counting down the months I have left.

I don’t know if that kind of thinking is very healthy, but I must admit I’ve had some thoughts on those lines from time to time.

View photos of this vacation at http://flickr.com/photos/75904300@N00/sets/72157594148302315/