Peace Corps
Thai 27
1969
 
 
 
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 for getting
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 a little
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 little irony
.
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 of trouble.
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 in Thailand.
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.”