I stood, body next to bike, in the middle of the street. Beads of sweat on my forehead formed into crystal balls under the pressure of the sun. The road ran on, curving into mountains like a little child lost in the curves of its grandmother. Men and women crouched in the rice paddy next to me, throwing their nets into the water. Behind me was the school, ahead of me just that open lonely road. What did this place look like before this road? What did the bulldozers kill? What was life in a place like this before televisions, trucks, pesticides? What will this place be after me?
A thousand miles from here they are building a road in Nepal. A few months ago I hiked through the remote villages on the Annapurna Circuit, drinking tea with the mothers and running around with the toddlers. Once some of the poorest people in the world, these people now live good lives. The trail that carved through their villages brought trekkers from all over the world, which in turn brought donations for schools and business for the guesthouses. However, within the next year that is all going to change. They are building a road that will bypass the majority of the trek. Now people will be able to hop in a jeep and see a view from the top of the earth that was meant to be earned. And all those little villages along the way will be left in the dust. Just like my little village in Thailand.
In order for the Peace Corps to send a volunteer to a site they must be requested by someone in the community. It only takes one person and a few agreeing parties. Then Peace Corps staff comes to visit the site. Twice. In my case, the principal from one my schools requested a volunteer, mostly because as I would come to discover, having a farong (foreigner) at your school earns you great bragging rights. My co-teachers who I am actually supposed to be working with are apathetic at best. And understandably so. I, with no teaching certificate, no real desire to be a teacher, have come to tell them how to do their job better, to convince them to do something they don’t even want to do. The only thing I bring to the table is my fluency in English, but even that seems more trivial every day. After all, no one here speaks English and no one really needs to. The vast majority of citizens grow up here, marry here, have children here, and stay here. They have bountiful farms and homes amidst jaw dropping scenery.
In order to use English the children I am teaching would have to leave this community. They, like many others in Thailand, would go to the cities of Bangkok and Chiang Mai. They might work in tourism, manipulating captured elephants and accompanying foreign hikers to exploit the quiet lives of hill tribe residents. Or even more likely they would work for foreign companies where they would earn a fraction of what they deserve since this is Southeast Asia and the profits certainly aren’t staying here. It’s not surprising the U.S. is so eager to send over volunteers to educate their future work force. And what would become of that town they left behind in the hills of Mae On? A farm without hands doesn’t grow and a community without young people cannot survive.
In the midst of it all, the past and future, the hot spot on this road, my morals must lie somewhere. On paper, the Peace Corps is a very good thing. What a lovely blot it would be on my resume. But here, in this country, in this program, in this town, I can’t help but acknowledge that it is just catalyst for a pretty poster of Kennedy and an excuse for a bunch of us to congratulate ourselves on being great humanitarians. My faith in purely philanthropic intentions is crumbling faster than the governments in the Middle East. Obviously, I can only speak for the site I was sent to in the country I was assigned, but it was with this realization that I made a heartbreaking decision.
The day I left Mae On I sat inside my suitcase, in the middle of the living floor of my empty house. The wind was swinging the front door open and shut as I watched footage of Americans celebrating the death of Bin Laden on the television screen. It was hard to tell which scenario made me sicker.
To my surprise, I didn’t cry when we drove away. I simply watched the hills turn to dust and the dust turn to dark. That youthful ambition to change the world died a little more inside. Yet, at the same time something new was growing-a desire to shape my world on my own terms, without the help of charlatans in suits pushing for development at any cost.
Goodbye Thailand, hello freedom. Now what could be more patriotic than that?