Volunteer Positive, an international service organization comprised of people living with and affected by HIV, has assembled its first group of volunteers. The group is in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Here are their stories of working with sex workers, at-risk youth, children orphaned by HIV and other groups.
Wait! I ask a friend as we make our way to the San Francisco airport. What’s the word for “fish paste” in Thai? I had been trying to learn a few Thai phrases before I left, but with only three months notice, I didn’t learn much Thai. Now I’m obsessed with fish paste because I’m vegetarian and I want to avoid it in my food. Clif Bars don’t have fish paste, I tell myself, as I throw them in my backpack.
It’s midnight at the airport and the food court is almost empty, yet the international terminal is full. Maybe everyone is looking forward to the food on the plane. Maybe they know something I don’t. Maybe it’s a sign about my adventure about to begin. Maybe I think too much.
At the moment I’m starting to crave Thai food, albeit a discombobulated version without meat … or fish paste.
The food on the Korean airline is American. Guess I’ll just have to wait, and wait, and wait. A long flight on a dark plane. When would be a good time to take pills? My doc says to just take them according to the time zone you are in. Is it really just that easy? I can’t get my mind off Thailand. What did I get myself into? I’m not what you would call a seasoned world volunteer. I’m just a florist.
I arrive in Taipei. I don’t get to try the food at the airport because I don’t have the right currency. I don’t know what they put in their food. I’ll have to take one culture at a time. Now I can’t wait to get to Bangkok airport and get some Thai food. I get off the plane and I see a woman holding a card with my name on it. (backwards as always). She says I’m late and we have to hurry. That becomes me running behind a security guard who leads me straight to a bus. Hmmmm, said bus drops me on the tarmac and it’s really hot. The area around the airport looks like what I would imagine Jonestown looked like. Is there gonna be Kool-Aid on this plane? I get whisked onto the plane and they serve a snack. FINALLY, some Thai food, but I don’t know what it is. I don’t taste anything fishy.
Chiang Mai Airport suddenly surrounds me. There are curious eyes around me and I’m a bit numb from no sleep. I’m a bit disoriented. This is not what I expected at all. Oh well, it’s now or never. I can’t turn back now. I climb into a hot and stuffy taxi and suddenly my anxiety starts to melt away. A temple in the distance glows with charms I’ve never seen before and gradually excitement radiates from the bustle on the street.
Stress resumes as I meet the other volunteers. They all seem so qualified for this service. My esteem is sinking and I don’t have any comfort food. I long forgot to ever look up whatever it was. Before our assignments begin we go to a temple high in the hills. I’m pale and making silent prayers to Buddha to give me enlightenment … And could he hurry?
By the way, does Buddha care if I’m HIV positive? Will I be able to enlighten the people of Chiang Mai by being openly poz? Or, maybe they will enlighten me. Wait! Can I get that without the fish paste?