This post is the next installment in a series about my trip to Thailand to volunteer helping elephants.
THE VOLUNTEERS, PART TWO
As a kid, summer camp is one of your early experiences forming friendships that go deep but don’t stay (geographically) close. You eat, sleep, play sports, tell ghost stories, compare fart blasts (boys camp I am talking about)—a million little things until you wake up one morning, the trees browner, summer’s teeth falling out, the zombie-wraith of school flashing you googly eyes from outside the window—and it’s time for everyone to go home.
And you know even at that innocent age that you will never see the people you went to camp with ever again.
But the good thing is—and you don’t realize this until you’re older—you still carry these friendships inside you. You can take them out and look at them like an old stamp collection that mostly just sleeps under a mountain of dust—but you know you’ll never get rid of those stamps. The colors are faded but still beautiful, and you can feel the edges of your feelings—they’re still there.
I didn’t quite receive the summer camp experience. I was bullied at summer camp from the time I set foot in the tiny bunkhouse. When I think of that time I can hear Dr. McCoy from the old Star Trek series muttering, “He didn’t make it, Jim”—I don’t think I lasted a week.
Watching my mother and grandmother pack up my stuff in front of all these boys that I had desperately tried to fit in with but would never to get to know—I felt like such a loser.
In many ways, the trip to Thailand is just an adult version of summer camp. The volunteers eat, hike, weave baskets, teach English, play games and watch movies—all together. No comparing fart blasts though—except when the elephants do it. Thong Dee wins the farting contests just like she dominates everything else.
This trip is a second chance for me to develop some summer camp-type friendships—but as an adult.
People like Mallory make it easy. Washing dishes with her with the sun like a comforting hand on my shoulder, I could talk easily with her.
Izzy is from Massachusetts—where I’m from originally—so we have a connection there. She says she aspires to be a “starving artist”—I hope she can just skip the “starving” part. She is constantly writing in a journal and that makes an impression on me—every time I see her I hear this voice say to me, “See what she’s doing? That writing thing… maybe take a whack at that yourself, big boy.”
Lisa has an Irish brogue so substantial that it’s like its own person. Her lips move but I swear the voice is coming from a guy mumbling in her backpack. Her brash personality is abruptly muted at one point when she is sweating the results from college exams. While playing soccer I catch a glimpse of her off by herself, clutching her phone, waiting to get the call about her future.
On hikes Stacey makes me feel like I have the dexterity of the Frankenstein monster, as I clomp behind her dislodging huge boulders that near-miss plowing into her. Some of the volunteers feel big brother-protective of her when she wanders into Chiang Mai and has a dozen guys eying her.
Siobhan is always exhorting me to “give it a go” no matter what the activity is, like when I wade in among the locals to buy some of their handmade goods. During the woven goods “bazaar,” the villagers present all their handmade goods to the volunteers at Base Hut for an hour or two of frenetic buying and selling.
Siobhan’s voice flutters in my ear like a butterfly about how “your girlfriend would love that” and “that would be great for your Mom” and I nod agreeably as the arm-twisting butterfly has me emptying my wallet. Thanks to Siobhan I am wrestling my suitcase to the death to pack in all the purses, skirts, beads, bags, and necklaces I bought from the villagers.
Phoebe is the only volunteer who unabashedly wants to move in to Huay Pakoot and build her whole life there. She began with an antipathy to teaching and over a few short months has become the teaching expert—she teaches the other teachers. On teaching days when she gathers her stuff to climb up the hill to the school I can see how her eyes come alive and the way she bounces in anticipation—she lives for this. Her bonds with the people in Huay Pakoot are deep and she and Siobhan are even invited to the wedding of a local couple—the only outsiders who are given this honor.
Neil and Jess are like the volunteer royalty. They squat on huge ornate thrones at Base Hut and gnaw on legs of lamb big as tree trunks while new volunteers wash their feet.
Then there is Thom and Ian, two volunteers who are like characters out of a buddy movie. They are both in their late 20’s, both culturally aware, both smart as whips—and as thin as whips as well. Ian is from London, England, Thom from Brisbane, Australia. They aren’t related, look nothing alike except for their stick-figure frames—and I still think they’re brothers separated at birth.
They love to argue and needle each other. They remind me of a more intellectual version of the Mafia characters De Niro and Pesci used to play, minus the gangsterism and, you know—the shooting people in the face.
Their banter forms the cultural, snark-filled play-by-play of the elephant hikes. When I want to take a break from meditating with the elephants and argue about who is the best James Bond (It’s Sean Connery, of course—although I go to bat for Roger Moore when I think he’s unfairly maligned), I can tune into Thom and Ian.
Thom can strike up a conversation with anyone about anything. On the ride from Chiang Mai when all of us volunteers are strangers, he suggests switching seats halfway through the trip so we can mix with different people and get to know each other faster. It’s a good idea and it works. He can serve and parry chatter with multiple people, like he’s a six-armed tennis player.
Ian is a little quieter than Thom, but what breaks the ice between us is a weird joke that Ian makes on a hike after one of the many stops to to pry a leech off my boot:
“Eat the leech,” he says, “to gain its courage.”
This is a joke with its roots in Nerdland, specifically video games, and instantly I perk up, since video games are a passion of mine and definitely have their own language. Hearing Video Game spoken in the jungles of Thailand is like hearing French spoken in a dive bar in Texas. It’s unexpected, wonderful, and possibly dangerous… well, speaking French in Texas is dangerous. An elephant probably won’t pummel you for talking nerdy.
When we are all asked, as part of a get-to-know-each-other icebreaker, what one person we would pick to be stranded on a deserted island with, most everyone picks the usual suspects—significant other, movie star, world leader. Thom picks Ian without hesitation, like he’s been waiting for the question for weeks. The reason: he just wants Ian to suffer with him.
Ian cracks up with the rest of us. If twenty years went by and you arrived on that desert island with a rescue boat, fireworks exploding and flags waving, shouting “You’re saved!”—I think they would look up briefly, their long beards fluttering… and they’d go back to needling each other.
Thom in particular is an open book about his opinions, so it comes out very quickly that he is not a fan of Foster’s beer, which of course has all those commercials in America about how “it’s Australian for beer, mate.”
Thom’s opinion is that it’s rat piss and native Australians—like him—don’t touch the stuff (which is true—it’s not a popular beer in Australia). That’s only mildly interesting. What’s more interesting is that Thom is really sensitive about this. The very thought that the rest of the world would perceive Foster’s beer as even remotely representative of anything truly Australian is a personal affront to him.
So naturally, everyone teases him about it.
I even pile on. When he is moderating the “Quiz,” the weekly trivia contest where all the volunteers compete against each other (Thom and Ian are repeat winners), Thom solicits everyone to come up with a team name. Most everyone takes this opportunity to tweak Thom about the Foster’s thing.
Like the team name I made up was this: “Team Foster’s: the Official Beer of Australia.”
People laughed. But I saw Thom’s reaction—a look more fatigued than hurt, like, Oh, this crap again, har-har—and I recognized it. My heart lurched like it was a tiger locked in a box.
The passionate opinions coupled with the frayed live wire-sensitivity: I was the same way, particularly when I was Thom’s age.
I was opinionated, passionate, and sensitive. I always wondered why people who professed to like me would poke at my sensitive spots. And I’m still not sure I know why they did it and still do it—maybe because it’s exciting or exhilarating to feel someone storming about something—maybe because feeling deeply is a peak human experience and if you don’t want to bother with it yourself, you can always provoke it in others.
But what I learned from watching Thom is that the people who like you and also tease you don’t do it out of antagonism. There is love there—I just don’t know what type it is—what you call it. Feeling that teasing coming from people you like—if you’re sensitive it can sometimes feels like it will break you.
I let up on the Foster’s stuff with Thom. I knew how he felt, and I discovered a new appreciation for him. It’s actually a great thing to be so passionate. I could also have new compassion for my own sensitivity, which I have felt in the past to be more of a weakness.
I don’t know if the teasing I received in summer camp as a kid compares to anything I ever experienced as an adult, or that it’s even close to what I am talking about with Thom and the Foster’s incident. Walking into that camp years ago at that age I felt like I had glass feet and my heart was huddled under a tissue paper tent. Kids are looking for your soft spots at that age to weaken you—there’s definitely a brinksmanship that fades or at least goes underground as you get older… but obviously I’m not eight any more.
I’ve eaten the eight year-old to gain its courage.
But more importantly, here in Huay Pakoot I finally did get my “summer camp” experience. I’ll carry around this place and these people for the rest of my life.
And maybe some day I’ll visit the deserted island, and beardy Thom and Ian will nod at me… then go back to needling each other.