Caitlin and I sat in my borrowed bedroom, voluntarily choosing to shut out the country we had eagerly volunteered to help. It was month two for us in Thailand, and while we loved the adventure of the Peace Corps and we felt lucky to have been placed in such a bright country with such cheery people, we needed a few minutes to ourselves.
Every morning we learned Thai for four hours; our brains were overloaded on the melodic Thai language that was a perfect mixture of difficult and fun. Every afternoon we met with other Peace Corps Volunteers to learn about Thai history, culture, and how to improve the quality of education in the villages to which we soon would be sent. During this training period I went to sleep by 8 o'clock, mentally exhausted, beat, spent. Every minute was full of so many new things; I appreciated a quick escape to normal and known.
So Caitlin and I did what we would do together every time we took a break from our Thai life, during training and over the course of the two years we were there: we played Scrabble. We sat on my rock-hard bed and dusty sheets, with the window open so that we could get a breeze and see the wide Chao Praya River that flowed just a few feet beyond. Caitlin was a better player than me, but not by much, so the games were good and we'd really get into it. We laughed and joked about funny cultural differences and also had long conversations about how we were eager to help--all of these conversations were in English, of course, which was a relief after so much Thai.
A lazy, word-filled hour or two later, my Thai host family arrived at the door. They all squished into the doorway--the young, pretty mother, the short, muscular father, the teenage son, and the preteen daughter who thought I was fat and deserved the nickname Mooo, which means Pig in Thai. Their faces met our faces. Our faces were clean and bright, refreshed from the quick escape into my own room, our own culture and our own friendship.
Their faces were...sooty. They had smudges of black all over them. They looked exhausted, beat, spent.
In basic Thai, paired with a whole lot of gesticulating so that we could understand their story, my Thai mother and father explained how there was a fire on the far side of the village. Fire stations don't exist in small villages like the one we lived in, so the villagers relied on themselves to fight it. Everyone who was in the village came out to help. Thin, tough Thai grandmothers did what they could to beat the fire back. They had gathered water in buckets from houses, formed a line to bring the buckets to the fire. After about an hour, the fire was under control, and then put out completely. The villagers returned to their houses to clean up and recover.
Caitlin and I looked at them in disbelief and then at each other in mortification, and down at our small travel Scrabble board game. I would have felt a little better about the situation had I been winning.