Peace Corps – Work Assignment

When I signed up to go to Thailand in the Peace Corps, it was as a civil engineer who had just graduated from college. I was looking for adventure and experience before settling into a more normal job and getting on with life. I also wanted to have the experience of seeing how people lived in a part of the world where wealth and prosperity were not so prevalent.

My work assignment in Thailand was to work with villages in the rural areas around Khon Kaen to help them design and build small dams and spillways that would enable them to store water from the rainy season and use it during the dry season. At that time villages were given public development funds based on the population of the village, with the requirement that the funds be spent on public works. As a consequence, there were a lot of villages that wanted to use their funds to build something, but, as I quickly discovered, their funds were not usually sufficient to build what they wanted. A small part of my training had to do with estimating what it cost to build dams or lay concrete, and I quickly learned to run rough numbers to determine if the funds available were even close to what would be needed. I didn’t enjoy being the bearer of bad tidings, but I think I was assigned to do so many of these visits because the village leaders were less prone to argue with me. Being a Farong, I was perceived as a much greater authority than I deserved. On the other hand, when available funds are only a fraction of what is needed, arguing doesn’t help, so maybe I was the best person for the job.

One of the benefits of this assignment, however, was that I got to spend quite a lot of time traveling around the rural areas around Khon Kaen. Sometimes I rode in a truck with a guide, sometimes I rode buses and songtaews, and, after I bought my motorcycle, I usually just rode it. Often my first visit would be in a truck with a guide, and then I would be expected to find my way back on my own thereafter. Sometimes this was easy, and sometimes it was not.

Usually, what they wanted was to build another storage pond that would enable them to raise gardens during the dry season. The picture I have included is of one such pond and the garden next to it. The people who gardened there would use buckets to carry water from the pond up to the garden, which was a lot of work, but it did give them a cash crop during the dry season.

Garden and Pond

In any case, whenever I showed up in a village to help them plan and estimate their project, it was always cause for a party, or at least a lunch. I did not drink anything alcoholic [still don’t], but I was offered a wide variety of home brews. When offered the output of the local still, I would always ask instead for fresh coconut milk, and they would nearly always cut down a coconut and serve me the milk within a few minutes. I also carried a quart canteen [about 1 liter] and a supply of iodine tablets with which to purify water. This was before the days of readily available bottled water and most people in the villages just drank it as it came out of the local pond. They always, as far as I know, insisted that the water buffalo stay out of the pond used for drinking water, but the water still fell short of potable by my standards. The iodine tablets killed the bugs [at least I never got sick on it], but the taste was not pleasant.

Writing this leads me to ask – What is the situation with drinking water in the villages today? I am sure that with the arrival of electricity, many of them will have wells, but some places cannot find water by drilling. Bottled water is available, but I would guess that it is still too expensive for many of the rural people. [Am I wrong?] Are there still places out there where people still use the local pond as their primary source of drinking water?

4 responses to “Peace Corps – Work Assignment