Peace Corps Edifice Complexes

Most Peace Corps volunteers are young—in their early 20s. When I went to Thailand with the Peace Corps in 1980, I was 22 and fresh out of college with a degree in Biology. And I want to do stuff—big stuff—stuff that could be seen, and would be talked about, like The Pyramids of Egypt. The stuff of immortality—that which would be talked about and admired forever! Peace Corps of course warned us that edifices was not what it was about—that in fact we were about building “relationships” or something of the sort. But what 22 year old believes that? Particularly the young people with impressive degrees in Engineering, Biology, and other such majors where we had learned about world-changing technologies?

To do such big stuff, I was sent to Phrae, Thailand, where I was assigned to the Malaria Zone Office which had the commendable mission of eradicating malaria. Unfortunately, when I arrived, it some became apparent after I arrived that that job was already done. A decade or two of prosperity, two or three decades of spraying DDT on rural houses, the treatment of all malaria cases had done that job. All that was left was a large boring malaria bureaucracy.

Thus the malaria zone office where I worked in Phrae was a rather sleepy place which processed thousands of diagnostic bloodslides, and sent out teams to spray DDT across three provinces in northern Thailand. It was made up of nice teak buildings, and a place to sit and read the newspaper, nap, and drink tea—frequent habits a the office. It was there in Phrae that I found out that bureaucracies have lots of meetings, sit around a lot, and are generally pretty boring places. So I sat in the entomology office back near the DDT store, where I raised guppies for distribution as mosquito fish, and studied Thai because there was little else to do.

Then in the evening, I would hang out in the market where I made friends with the market ladies who helped me with my Thai, and spent my evenings at my own teak house, which was tucked into a corner of a small Phrae neighborhood complete with a betel nut chewing neighbor I called “grandma,” and another neighbor who drove a pedicab and frequently got drunk at which point he would yell at his daughter. It was a great group of people, especially when the pedicab driver was sober. As for “grandma,” she and her family helped me with my Thai too—there is nothing like listening to a mouth full of betel nut to train careful hearing. Among other things, she regaled me with tales of the former inhabitant of my house, the Peace Corps Volunteer “John” who liked to do drugs of some sort.

All this of course created a problem for that ambitious Peace Corps volunteer who wanted to do the stuff of immortality. The biggest problem was that indeed my predecessors in Phrae did in fact do the stuff of immortality, a condition highlighted by a 100 hundred meter long suspension bridge across a local river. I heard all about Steve (or was it Kevin?) who built the “Swinging Bridge” about 10 years before I arrived in Phrae. Steve was an engineer who in a fit of independence organized villagers to solve a real problem—getting across the river. The bridge had two tall impressive towers, and cables to hold it together. It was great—a miniature Golden Gate Bridge, and it swayed when I rode my motorcycle across! To make it worse, the Thai people told me that Kevin/Steve spoke outstanding Thai, wrote those squiggly characters, spoke the northern Thai dialect, ate the hottest food, and drank the local whiskey. The bridge in 1980-1982 was firmly in place ten years after he left—and certainly people talked about him, especially since the bridge provided access via foot, bicycle, and motorcycle to the entire left bank of the Yom River. So every time I rode my motorcycle across the river, I would wonder, what would my own personal mark on Thailand be? How could I be more “Gaeng” than Steve/Kevin? Or would it simply be two years sitting among the DDT, creating such an impressive bridge? Isn’t the point of Peace Corps to leave a local memory of yourself?

Well, I found a way to leave that memory, or so I thought. Toward the end of my Peace Corps service, I found a village which needed water systems. Cheap PVC pipe which you glued together (as opposed to metal pipes with threads) had recently been introduced to Thailand, and was about to revolutionize water supply. I managed to ingratiate myself to Ban Nam Jom, a really remote village where they still had work elephants for hauling illegal teak from the forest, brewed their own whiskey, and generally thought my Thai was Gaeng! So I hustled up $900 or so from the Peace Corps and Canadian Embassy, and voila—set the mechanics of my edifice in motion. I would provide rural water supply for the three hamlets of Ban Nam Jom—something like 200 people. Surely they would remember me from now until eternity, just like we remember the Pyramid builders of Egypt!

I was so thrilled with this, that after returning home to California, I wrote up one of my first academic articles about installing the water system of Ban Nam Jom. The journal Water International was so thrilled with it that they actually published it—one of my very first publications.

Anyway, earlier this year I returned to Phrae, and of course wanted to re-visit the sites of my Peace Corp glory. This was made easier because last year, using contacts I made while a Peace Corps Volunteer in 1980-1982, my daughter began teaching English at one of the schools in Phare. So I was able to borrow her pink scooter, and jamming a helmet on my head which was two sizes too small. The results of my Peace Corps edifice survey.

–Steve/Kevin’s bridge is gone! I asked around about it, and it was only vaguely remembered. When I went to the site of the bridge, I saw a brand new bridge. (Well, really not brand new, it is probably 20 years old.) As for the towers of the “Golden Gate Bridge of Phrae,” only one is still there, and it is covered with vines.   The locals don’t even notice it any more. Steve/Kevin has been returned to anonymity.

–I couldn’t find the malaria office where I worked for two years next to the DDT boxes. I think a row of businesses have been built on the parcel, but I couldn’t recognize which building it was, and these buidlings now look “old.” (Presumably they have very few mosquitoes though, the result of DDT’s long half life).

–A small hotel was built on top of where my house used to be—in fact it was finished just last year. I asked the family who owns the hotel what had happened to “my” house, and was told that they bought up the buildings, and knocked them down. They also mentioned that everyone was really happy about that because the houses were used for drug dealing, whiskey brewing, and who knows what else.

–I’ve kept in touch over the years with the ladies in the market who helped me learn to speak Thai. They’ve moved their shop across the street, but still settle noodles, as indeed the have for the last 35 or 40 years. They are still there selling noodles—it is the best Pad Thai in the world—if you want a referral, let me know. They are now teaching my 24 year old daughter Thai, too.

–We went out to find Nam Jom, and were told that it was no more—what was left of the village had been merged with a larger village. Ban Nam Jom is now in the middle of a national park, and depopulated—there were only a few houses left. The government has cracked down on illegal lumbering, so the work elephants are all gone. (Maybe if they are lucky, they will get the wild elephant population back!). No idea what happened to “my “ water system.

And so life goes on. What really remains are the relationships, and I suppose the fact that people in “my” Peace Corps town of Phrae continue to do more for me and my daughter, than I did for them. I seem to remember that somewhere in our training we were told that this would be the case—that the real edifice are in the relationships built. For the rest—it is all dust! Even for the engineers like Steve/Kevin.

Originally published at Ethnography.com, August 12, 2015