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

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