Misty, Somtam Stained Memories
by Bob Blau
Here are a few pre-Peace Corps memories that I cherish:
-- Calling my draft board. "Uh, what do you think my prospects
drafted are?" "What do you think? Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!"
-- Withdrawing from school. "Now, why do you want to go and
do a stupid
thing like that? You wanna go to Southeast Asia? Just hang around
while. All will be taken care of for you."
-- My Peace Corps physical. I joined the cattle call for draftees.
("Spread your cheeks, girls!") I was probably the only
one there who wasn't
headed for the army.
Escondido. It was February, 1969. I don't remember
anything about the plane trip, except that there was one. To San
Diego. I remember spending the night at a hotel near the Greyhound
bus station. Had to ask a cabbie to pick one for me. I walked to
the bus station and met my new "roomies." We were all
herded onto a bus to Escondido. Dental and eye exams. The first
of what were to be many shots. I think this one was for yellow fever.
Three days in Escondido, and our first casualty. Remember …
Layne, I think it was? She was kicked out for smoking marijuana.
Not there. The scuttlebut said someone had revealed the information
in one of those background checks. The Peace Corps had a policy
of not asking about drugs (one of the first "Don't ask, don't
tell" policies that have since become so popular). They knew
that, if they did, they would only have six volunteers to cover
the world. So, the information must have been volunteered, a nice
Hilo. We approached the Hilo airport in a driving
rain. The pilot made a couple of feeble passes at landing, couldn't
do it, and flew on to Honolulu. So, we waited at the Honolulu airport
for a few hours until we could get a flight back
to Hilo. The one we got was bound for San Francisco and beyond after
the stop at Hilo. We were working on the theory that, given a few
hours, the monsoon we had blundered through would abate. So much
for theories. When we approached
Hilo airport, it was clear (in concept; obvious; not the weather)
that the theory needed work. We landed on the second pass, I believe.
George Papagiannis said it was the closest thing to a crash he'd
ever seen. Fortunately, I was a blissfully inexperienced flier,
and although I did see a tunnel with a bright light at the end,
I didn't know that this was not a routine landing experience. But
the pilot had to land, right? Otherwise, we would have had to go
back to California, and think how inconvenient that would have been.
I mean, compared to death, and all.
Pepeekeo. Our ultimate destination. Since none
of us died there, I guess it wasn't our "ultimate" destination
after all. Derek and Geza gave it a good go, though. When we woke
up the first morning in Pepeekeo, we discovered that we had suffered
our second casualty. Nick Thiele, I believe, had taken one look
at the digs and decided that this was not for him. He caught the
next plane back. If we had just continued on to San Francisco, instead
of risking that dangerous landing, we could have saved him a lot
But never mind that. We were off on our intensive training course
that included Thai, TEFL, and the ever-popular Cross-Cultural Studies
(how not to look like a swine at a Bar Mitzvah). For all of this,
we eagerly rose at 5 a.m. each morning. The staff later confessed
that they'd never thought that we'd put up with that.
Our East Side beach. While the Big Island has (or
had) some beautiful beaches, they are (or were) all on the west
side. East side beaches look more like what you might call cliffs
beetling over the ocean. We had one of those beaches behind the
training site. There was a nice little vantage point out there,
but you had to clamber down a fairly steep incline to get there,
so you couldn’t always go. We had a sort of scale that perhaps
foreshadowed the present day Homeland Security Advisory System.
If it was "Moderately Soaked," the driest point on the
scale, it was ok to go clambering. "Drenched" was a judgment
call. "Condition Noah," the usual situation, was not the
time to go.
“Peer Noms?” More than enough said.
Honolulu. Practice teaching in the public schools.
I vaguely remember that. What I mainly remember is May Day. (I've
never seen so many Hawaiian shirts...)
The flight to Thailand. I remember it well. The
broad, blue Pacific spreading out before my eyes, followed by ...
the broad, blue Pacific spreading out before my eyes. Then came
... the broad, blue Pacific spreading out before my eyes. It was
one of the most boring episodes of my life. That is one big ocean.
And remember! We were starting from Hawaii! At long last, someone
said, "Look! There's Japan!" I looked. It was lush, green,
stunning. I could see Mount Fuji. In all that beautiful landscape,
there was only one tiny, black dot. The dot got bigger. And bigger.
And I realized that that was our destination. It was Tokyo. We had
a brief layover there, enough time to get off the plane and buy
a camera. Really. The air could only be described as ... Well, I
had never seen gray air before. I don't remember much about landing
What I do remember is being hustled on to buses to be taken to our
hotel. That was when I knew for sure we weren't in Kansas anymore.
For one thing, the buses were a little different than I was used
to - a little ricketier, not shaped quite the same. But what really
did it was the smells. Thailand smelled different. There was no
way to mistake that for anywhere else I had ever been.
Miscellaneous in-country stuff in no particular order.
The moon rocks. Khon Kaen Witthayayon, my …
alma mater, took a “thiaw” to see the moon rocks when
they came to Bangkok. As most or all of you know – but just
for the record, that meant hopping excitedly onto one of those rickety
old buses in the afternoon, driving all night, looking at some rocks,
hopping a little less excitedly onto the bus, and driving all night
again to get home. It was the trip home … I think by that
time we were all familiar with the Kamikaze School of Driving from
which all drivers of large vehicles graduated. Or more likely, flunked
out of. But nothing had prepared me for the guy we got that day.
Even the Thais were white. A bit south of Ayutthaya, Ajaan Somsak
calmly walked to the front of the bus and turned to face the students
(many of whose fingers had to be surgically extracted from the seats
they had been gripping so fervently). With his back to the driver,
he said – for the benefit of the students, of course –
in his most soothing voice, “We’ve got plenty of time
to get back. There’s really no hurry at all.” It did
seem to get better after that.
What I did on my summer vacation in South Thailand.
I traveled with my student, Wanchai, a former AFS student. On the
train, we fell in with some Bangkok Thais who were on their way
to a “buatting” for a young man who was one of the group.
They were led by a monk who was based in Bangkok, but was a native
of Ko Samui. (We did visit Ko Samui, and Pete was not there.) This
monk took us all over the place. There was one remote little island
where we were entertained with a repast of seaweed at the local
wat. One of the women in the group was seen to walk off and regurgitate.
I was told that she originally declined to eat the seaweed, but
when she saw me eating it, she said something to the effect of,
“If the farang can eat this crap, so can I!”
Wanchai and I went on to Phuket. The night before, we stayed at
a wat. I overheard Wanchai talking to one of the monks, who told
him it was very dangerous to cross the peninsula by bus. The next
morning, he said maybe he didn’t really want to see Phuket
that badly. But I was stubborn in those days, and we went. Those
of you who have made the trip know how breathtaking the scenery
is. Oddly, the bus ride was one of the safest I ever took in Thailand.
Yes, if you look up “hairpin turn” in the dictionary,
it has a picture of the road to Phuket. But the driver was excruciatingly
careful. Until that day, I had thought “slow Thai bus driver”
was an oxymoron.
Age-guessing: the Thai national sport. My favorite
incident comes from my year in Yala. I was in a shop buying …
a soap dish, I think. The proprietor was so tickled to see a farang,
that he chatted me up a treat. Eventually, he offered to guess my
age. Ok. “25!” he said. I was impressed, and told him
so. I was actually 24 at the time. “Oh, I know how it’s
done with farangs,” he said with a touch of pride. “You
take the age they look and subtract 10.”