July 22nd, 2015

NASA_bighead

My Peace Corps service - short version

Since katbyte asked...

March 1975 I landed in Bangkok as Peace Corps/Thailand's only Audio/Visual technology volunteer. I was already a qualified radio/TV production person, ran camera, audio and video controllers, did videotape editing, and had taught B&W darkroom classes. I also had worked on small newspapers and knew most of the printing process for those.

We were sent north for 3 months of intensive language and cultural training, but since I did not need ESL teacher training like the rest of the group, I was sent to my work site a few weeks early.

That site was IPST, the Institute for the Promotion of Teaching Science and Technology. It was behind the planetarium, and is still there.

My job was supposed to be running camera and editing videotape, but it had taken Peace Corps 18 months to get me there, and by that time the institute had found competent Thais to fill that role. The only other project they had for me was to solve a problem with photos. One of the things they were doing was taking American science and math textbooks, translating them into Thai, and replacing the American photos with Thai photos. But when they tried to do that, the photos came out solid black. They figured it was some complex secret thing they needed to do, and I would need a few weeks or months to fix the problem. Long story short, it was something very simple, and I showed them how to fix it in about 3 minutes.

So now I had no work to do. They found one thing which was fun - the textbooks had movies to go with them, and my Thai was pretty good, so was my technical English, so they had me watch the Thai language dubs of the movies, and follow the English script, so I could let them know when they chose the wrong translation. I can only remember a handful of mistakes, mostly in the chemistry films. One good thing for me is I learned high school physics - in Thai - a class I had not taken at home.

But for most of the year I killed time in the library, reading organic chemistry textbooks. After work my spare time was divided between doing tech and acting with the local English language community theater, and hanging out in the girlie bars, flirting.

At IPST, the woman in charge of procurement was a retired Peace Corps volunteer from the first group, who had married a Thai man who was in the legislature. She was one of those people who knew everything that was going on, and when she found out that I was being wasted, she had her husband write an Official Letter to Peace Corps saying my job was being outsourced to the university, and they should find me another assignment.

I had been working with the World Health Organization and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in some of the IPST doings, and expected to be sent to one or the other in Bangkok. IPST let me loose before Peace Corps had another place for me, so the country director had me travel all over the country, taking pictures and talking with volunteers, which resulted in a slide/tape show with Thai music in the backgound, which was supposed to be sent to the US to use at orientation. It was very well received when I played it for the volunteers & staff, but apparently that was the only time it was used.

When I was done with that project, much to my horror they sent me to the south, to the Rubber Research Center, a large campus a few miles outside of Haad Yai. Haad Yai is the place where the train from Malaysia and Singapore enters Thailand.

My job was to teach a group of very talented artists, who were agriculture agents, how to use a camera, develop film, print photos and do photo silk screening. We never got the equipment to do the latter. I did all the classes in Thai. My boss was the only one in the group who spoke any English.

My favorite part of the job was going out to the research station in Phuket once a month to take photos of rows of trees and other plants to show some of the diseases they could get, and how to treat them. These photos were worked into slide shows which we played at provincial fairs.

The project I am proudest of is my photos which showed rubber farmers how to grow cash crops like pineapple and chili peppers in between rows of newly-planted rubber trees. There was a type of tree developed in Malaysia which produced 10x the amount of rubber, and the Thai government was encouraging all the plantations to pull out their old trees and plant these new ones. But it takes a tree 7 years to start producing rubber, so the plan was to divide the plantation into 8 sections, pull up 1/8 each year and plant new trees, and grow other crops in the aisles between the trees. By year 7, the first 1/8 would produce more rubber than the whole plantation had produced before. By year 15, production would be 10x what it had been before. When I visited in 1985 and again 2 years ago, I saw this intercropping plan in use all over the place.

I lived in a room in what had once been the RRC director's mansion, which I had to myself for a few months, but then they made the other half into a dorm for the rubber tappers.

My only extra-curricular activities were minor. I taught a class once a week on English slang, and was taught Thai slang in return. Once in a while I would take pictures for another volunteer in town who was teaching physical therapy. And I tested most of the massage parlors in town. Every night I either rode my bicycle or took a bus into town and ate at the open air night market.

When my 2 years was up, Peace Corps in DC lost my final paperwork, and I was stuck in Haad Yai with no income or housing for about 3 months. The physical therapist and one of the English teacher volunteers found me apartments to sit, but the local American consulate refused to help me at all. The US Consul himself told me there was nothing he could do...

Finally got the paperwork, which let me buy my plane ticket and get to Singapore to buy camera gear. And that's a whole 'nother story.