From Forest Lake to Bangkok in 48 hours

From the moment I left my cat in Forest Lake, Minnesota in early January to when I started my job as a volunteer in late March, my internet access was sparse.  To my friends and family in the states, little happened in that time aside from my training.  This is not true.  A lot happened only I didn’t have any spare time to write about it or publish it.  I’ll start with how it all began.

My first day of training was in Philadelphia, Saturday, January 8.  Sunday morning, all 66 volunteers were scheduled to bus to JFK airport in New York City and fly to Tokyo for a quick layover and then on to Bangkok.  It was about 21 hours of travel time from JFK to Thailand.

I hadn’t slept much the night before and had been nervous all week to the point I wasn’t eating well.  For those who know my skinny ass, I can eat a lot, especially considering my small frame.

After a quick goodbye to my mom and dad in the departures lane of the Minneapolis airport (it was 4 a.m., therefore, I was too tired to get emotional) I checked my baggage and found a spot at the end of a long security line.  It was there I spotted my first Peace Corps friend – Mark Del Greco of Sandstone, MN.  I predicted he was also a volunteer by his slip-on loafers and formal attire.  As I sat in a half daze at the departure gate, I was tempted to ask the tall guy if he was going into the Peace Corps.  I choose not to in case he was one of those people who wouldn’t stop talking.  It was 4:30 a.m. and I didn’t want to talk.

After the plane hit the snowy runway in Philadelphia, I introduced myself and Mark and I made our way together through the airport to find our luggage.  We’ve been friends ever since.

Andy, left, Kanji, middle, Dev and I chill on the floor of the JFK airport.

In the Holiday Inn shuttle, I met my next Peace Corps friend – Megan West.  Her luggage had been lost on her flight from Chicago and it was at this point I began to wonder if I’d be the only volunteer over 30 as both Mark and Megan had recently graduated college.

My worries were quickly squashed after checking into my hotel room and meeting a plethora of volunteers of similar and older age than me.  Not only were they older, they were really cool, too!  Wait a minute, I thought, everyone is really cool.  I think I’m in the right place.

By the end of the seven-hour session, I felt like I’d made at least a dozen new friends and couldn’t have felt more welcome and excited about the next two years of my life.  Even though I’d only covered a few hours of my 27-month adventure, I became excited knowing when I came back I’d have friends to visit in Seattle, New York City, Pittsburgh, Houston, Chicago, North Carolina, Colorado and Sandstone.

Paul and Andy do their best to get money from a Japanese ATM.

I went to dinner with a large group to a nice restaurant about a 10-minute walk from the hotel.  It was snowing.  I had just become friends with Dev.  Dev’s from Houston.  He’d never seen snow accumulate on the ground.  This blew my mind.

It wasn’t until after I’d finished my entire meal and talking with Erica and Dev that I realized it was the first full meal I’d eaten in a week.  After hearing from Peace Corps staff and making new friends, I wasn’t nervous anymore.

It was tempting to stay up all night like my roommate Paul did, but I choose for rest instead.  I’d have two years to get to know my new friends.

Denise gives a thumbs up outside the Tokyo airport.

Dev slept in the seat next to me on the bus the next morning.  I dozed off and on, but wanted to be awake as we drove through New York City.  It was fitting that the last major site of America I saw, aside from the airport, was Citi Field, home of the New York Mets.

Before we even left Philadelphia, we’d heard rumors our flight was delayed.  It was – six hours, meaning we’d miss our connecting flight in Tokyo.  This was not an issue for me as it just meant another night in a hotel I wasn’t paying for as well as the fact that we wouldn’t have to take a seven-hour flight after the 14-hour flight.

All 66 volunteers took up residence in the ground floor of JFK airport.  Some people tossed a Frisbee, some sat in circles and talked and some, like me, dozed in and out of sleep with a few select friends nearby doing the same.  Two days earlier I was nervous and now I was sleeping on dirty carpeting with pigeons walking nearby in the basement of a New York City airport and 65 new acquaintances in my midst.

My first picture in Thailand as volunteers greet each other in the airport after 21 hours of air travel in two days.

I watched The Social Network on the plane, read Never Let Me Go, listened to my iPod and slept occasionally while my roommate Paul, slept all 14 hours.  Once we got to Tokyo the Japanese airline sent us to our hotel.  Paul and I walked up the street for some beers and sat in our room with Andy, sipping Japanese beer while watching goofy Japanese television.

My 24 hours in Japan impressed me and I hope I can go back some day.  The people were wonderful and amazingly organized, especially after the mess we left in New York.  When we left the hotel in Philadelphia, we were on our own – no staff.  It wasn’t easy organizing 66 volunteers to take one flight from New York to Tokyo, but Connie did it.

Landing in Bangkok felt strange knowing this country would be my home for the next two years and I knew next to nothing about it.  We were greeted at the gates by Peace Corps staff and were able to skip immigration due to our elite status.  I was waiting for a wave of heat to hit me when I went outside, but it felt like a summer evening in Minnesota and nothing more.

I grabbed a seat on the bus next to Mark and my 27 months in Thailand officially began.

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