We’ve all got regrets from our years in middle school and junior high, some of which most of us would probably rather not delve in to, especially in the realm of the clothes we were convinced were “cool.” (Think: Hypercolor shirts, overalls, big bangs, pegged baggy jeans,…oh, the list could go on…) But, as my search for the end of the sidewalk has taken me down paths I never could have imagined when I was wandering the halls of Jefferson Junior High, I couldn’t have foreseen that a bit more effort in Mr. Shake’s geography class would have come in handy.
I dreaded those frequent map quizzes, with just the outlines of countries and mocking stars of capitals. At the time, did I think I would ever need to know the difference between Haiti and the Dominican Republic? (I finally got those straight in my thirteen year old mind by remembering that Haiti is the shorter word, so it gets the smaller part of the island. That is some quality logic! That information became key when I moved to the island of Hispaniola to study abroad during college. With the big and little of it in mind, I was able to safely find myself on the correct side of the island. Most of the time.) Or did I need to know where the Yellow River was in China? (When that is the determining factor for heat in your apartment, you soon figure it out!)
At the time, Bangkok was one of the cities that actually stood out to me when the maps of Southeast Asia were handed out, not because I had any great interest in Thailand, and not even because it sounds like it was named by a prepubescent boy, but because it held the exotic appeal of hard men being humbled and tough men tumbling and references to people and places and events I didn’t understand, but backed by haunting music that clung to my mind like pearls to an oyster.
A score and a few years later, I found myself back in that sweltering city, not for anything as exotic as a global chess tournament, but rather for training with the State Department for my first non-teaching job in over a decade.
I may have sat in a hotel conference room for forty (or more!) hours that week, learning a massive amount about the eight portfolios that make up my position, which was well-worth the trip, but the minute we were released at the end of each day, I was ready to go see the city. Within moments of being dismissed for the afternoon, I was in our (very posh!) hotel room, stripping off the layers of clothing necessary to keep warm in any conference room around the world (never mind that it was a balmy 90 degrees outside), shucking the tights, corduroy skirt and cardigan for shorts, a tank top and sandals.
One night, we had the chance to meet up with our fellow ex-Crystal City Oakwood mo-partment mates, David and Ian, who were in town for a brief layover before heading south to the lovely beaches of Phuket. (See, I’m telling you, an entire country named by pre-pubescent boys. Wait until you see the picture of Thad at the Mo Chit Skytrain stop.)
We met up at Cabbages and Condoms, a great restaurant that started as a small NGO, and has blossomed into several locations within Thailand. Other than serving good food and fun, fruity drinks, their shtick is that all of their proceeds to go AIDS prevention and family planning education- both very worthy causes. While we waited for David and Ian to arrive, we perused the shop filled with all things condom. I decided against sending the postcards home to my elementary-aged nieces and nephews, but did end up buying both a shoulder bag and a scarf for myself. (Both of which I could have bought at the weekend market for a lower price, but I figured it was a good way to help the cause.) Rather than mints coming with the bill as a parting gift, we were each given a lovely, pink-wrapped condom as our take-away for the night. They have a theme and boy, do they stick with it!
As I think back to that second-floor classroom on 10th Street in Caldwell, the one in which I dreaded the day the atlases and colored pencils were handed out, the one in which I felt like nothing we were doing would ever have any consequence in my own life, I have to laugh. More than any other class (okay, other than English, but I have a natural bias there), geography is the hallmark of the Foreign Service. Capital city names roll of the tips of tongues like poetry off the lips of a bard. Who doesn’t need to know where Dhaka and Djibouti are? Or Dakar and Dushanbe? And if you don’t know them, it doesn’t take long to not only place them on a map, but learn their current state of political affairs and exactly how long it takes to fly from said city to home in the States. These are the places where you find that middle ground between despair and ecstasy. These are the places that will be home.