My Dad (the real, American one) came to Thailand!!!! And with Dad comes adventure. We spent a few days in Khon Kaen, my home city, before we traveled to Chiang Mai. Every day so far has included vain yet futile attempts to keep the “core temperature” down. Essentially, we have discovered there is a critical point to which the heat is no longer acceptable and a toddler-like meltdown occurs until we find an air-conditioned 7-11 or body of water to swim in. Only then does the world become sunny and bright again and our activities can resume.
Luckily, we picked a cool, manageable day to play with elephants. We traveled in a Song Thao (open-air trucks) for a few hours up into the windy mountains before hiking down into a small, secluded valley with a clear creek bubbling through. Being a cloudy day and higher elevation, it was a manageable temperature.
In the background is a passion fruit farm, a scary location for the farmer!
There were two of them that we got to interact with, the rest appearing to be in other places in the valley with other tour groups. One of them, Gulag, was around 12 years old but was still on the smaller side compared to the 39 year old Papa. Both of them eyed our sugar cane like I eye my own food; with a sharp, keen interest and a fear of it being immediately taken away.
If an elephant isn’t eating, it was probably drinking!
We fed the elephants, admiring their massive, powerful trunks and soft, big feet. Then, we walked with them (no bull hooks, chains, or prods involved, just the guides and their voices) over to the creek and went for a little walk up and down the creek, the elephants eating everything in sight. By this point, we had learned that elephants eat around 400 pounds of food a day, spending most of their waking hours eating. I really began to identify with the elephants at this point.
Papa, the big elephant, is eyeing me and the sugar cane I hold in my hand.
We walked with the elephants down to a smaller stream, where they happily began bathing and soaking up the cool water. I and another girl joined in, throwing water at the elephants and she scrubbed their backs. By the end of it, I was completely soaked from splashing and the elephant’s blowing water out their trunk at me. Imagine someone blowing water at you through a hollow pool noodle as enthusiastically as they can, but multiply the lung capacity of that person by 10 and you get what it’s like to be sprayed in the face by an elephant.
I’m about to get sprayed!
Overall, it was an amazing day and I’m so incredibly lucky I both had the opportunity to see, interact with and swim with elephants.
“I wrote my way out of hell. I wrote my way to revolution I was louder than the crack in the bell. I wrote Eliza love letters until she fell, I wrote about the Constitution and defended it well. And in the face of ignorance and resistance, I wrote financial systems into existence. And when my prayers to God were met with indifference I picked up a pen. I wrote my own deliverance.”
In the new musical Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton (yes, the American Founding Father) sang this in Hurricane. This quote recognizes the power of words and writing. And that’s what I have realized on my time abroad. Words are powerful; I have been able to communicate my struggles and triumphs and seek guidance through this blog and e-mails to people over 7,500 miles away. Writing is more than just a tool to communicate my needs; it is a powerful agent and a medium for expression and exploring different thoughts and ideas. Writing helps me think and understand my world, and reading helps me understand other people. I grew up with a wall to wall, floor to ceiling bookshelf and many other book cases sprinkled like Easter eggs throughout the house, and I learned so much about other people and ways of life from books. But many the majority of villagers I have lived with have very few, if any, books; I know two of my many host moms were illiterate. Words and reading are such a central part of my childhood and current identity that it was incredibly eye opening to see a complete lack of that which I love.
“What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see. I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me. ” Hamilton upon being shot by Aaron Burr in the song The World Was Wide Enough.
I am but a small, minute speck who has nestled out a place in the hearts of a few people in America and Thailand. I have no idea what my legacy in Thailand is; do my host families still remember the time I took a shower in the chili field, or how I didn’t know how to eat sticky rice properly? And they will never know what I took away from them, just as I do not know what they got from me. But I do know that the memories I now have scattered throughout Thailand will become part of something else, something much grander and more beautiful than anything I alone could ever achieve.
“Let me tell you what I wish I’d known when I was young and dreamed of glory; you have no control who lives who dies who tells your story” – George Washington in History Has It’s Eyes on You
The villages I went to have minimal to no control over how their needs, and their story is handled by the central Thai government. Newspapers, media, and discussions are censored, and the Isaan region is looked down on by central Thailand. Isaan is historically seen as poor and dry, with minimal resources. And this is largely because, historically, the Isaan region was once a part of Laos, so Isaan has its own dialect and separate culture from central Thailand. Some travel to Bangkok to work, but most live their lives as indebted farmers who struggle to have health care, education, and control over who, if anyone, tells their story while they live or after.
“Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now…. Look at where you are, look at where you started.” Eliza Hamilton in That Would Be Enough.
This semester, I have seen amazing and beautiful things, from the ancient temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia to the mountains to the beaches of Thailand. I’ve traveled and explored and had my heart opened and filled many times over. When I think I’ve had my fill of the experience, something new happens and I step into a new state of mind and look around again. Sometimes, I am completely overwhelmed by the new foods and people I have met and places I have seen. Sometimes I miss home and just want to eat an avocado grilled cheese sandwich. And that’s normal and acceptable for a study abroad experience, but really, the best way to appreciate my time is to take a step back and look around at how lucky I am to be here, in Thailand, alive right now.
“Teach me how to say goodbye.” – Alexander Hamilton in The World Was Wide Enough
With most of my host families, I had no idea how to say goodbye. And for all but one mom with a Facebook account, I have no way contact them. So at the end of the week, my host families and I parted ways, occasionally shedding tears. Last week, I went back to a village for my final project. As I was leaving, I stopped into the house of one of my families to see my first grandma. I held her hand for a bit, and we talked about the colors of the scarf she was weaving. And as I got up to leave, I said in English (lacking the ability to say it in Thai) “I will never see you again”. That much I knew. She smiled deeply, like she understood me. She just let me go, both our hearts full of thoughts. I will think of her often. So maybe she helped me say goodbye in the moment, but it’s not really goodbye. She, and the rest of my host families, have taught me how to think intentionally about other people, even and especially when you will never see them again. They taught me to not say just goodbye, just to say farewell.
Thanks for reading this new style of blog! Here are the links, in order of the blog post, to the amazing songs I quoted. But I would really recommend just starting at the beginning and listening to the musical all the way through, it’s on Spotify, iTunes and YouTube for sure.
DISCLAIMER: I had an amazing experience where I met a remarkable person and saw and grew and was challenged to think and act in ways I never foresaw. This blog does not come close to doing my experience and his story justice, but I would need to write a book to accomplish that. I do not know what I can give back to him by writing this blog post, if anything, but maybe I can give back to others who are also isolated and lonely through making readers pause and think about the person they are interacting with, rather than just the helpfulness they represent in bringing a meal or taking the week’s garbage away. And maybe, maybe, one day you will discover a hidden secret or even magic in an unlikely place.*****
On Koh Samet (the island I went to last weekend), I had the honor and privilege of meeting and photographing Roa (not his real name), a Cambodian who also spoke Thai and English. Remember that classy resort my friends and I snuck into to “borrow” the private beach? Roa worked at that resort. I met him by wandering through the resort looking for someone for a photography assignment for class, and there was some quality about him that drew me to him rather than the giggling women cleaning windows.
Roa is a kind man, and a lonely one. He was 37 years old, and came from Cambodia alone to work at the resort. His English was rather good, so we were able to have long conversations. As best as I can articulate, Roa’s enigmatic quality is a mixture of careworn, loneliness, heartbreak, strength and concern. The closest I can describe my connection with him at the end of our two hours together is friendship, compassion and, oddly, kinship. The English language fails to produce the proper words and phrasing to communicate my deep emotions for him.
I took a lot of things away from our time together. How privileged I am to come and go as I please into any country, how lucky I am to have wonderful friends and family that I can talk to whenever I want, not having to wait to scrape together the money to visit home, and how amazing it is that I will probably always have a decent to high-paying job, working less than Roa’s 14 hour days but earning more than his $2.50USD per day. These things I knew in principle, but Roa helped hammer the ideas home.
But most of all, I took away the power and resiliency, the beauty of the human spirit. Roa is in Thailand alone; he does not have friends on the island, and his family is all in Cambodia. He works hard during the day, goes home to a deserted bungalow, sleeps, gets up early and does it all again. He does not interact much with the resort customers besides taking drink orders because customers rarely engage him in conversation. He kept asking me at first if I was looking for something or needed anything before I could explain I just wanted to follow him for a few hours. Not creepy at all, I know.
This was a saddening and frustrating thing I experienced; here was this amazing, strong, capable, trilingual man, reduced to taking food and beverage orders from privileged foreigners for $2.50USD per day. People ignored him, treating him like he was an automaton or someone not worthy of forging a relationship with. And this is one of the few things I can try to pass on to the world; people are people. Just because someone has a job looked down on in society, a seemingly “lesser” occupation, does not mean that person is “lesser”.
Roa gave me so much. He gave me his time, his permission to share his story, and a lot of compassion and insight into his plight. He taught me to open my eyes, watching the world with glittering eyes and a wide open mind. And I did not give him anything in return. Sure, I helped him sweep the sidewalk. And yes, I showed him that someone saw him as more than a machine taking drink orders by the pool, that someone saw the person behind the uniform. But beyond that, I seemed to take much more out of the exchange. And there’s something deeply uncomfortable but also beautiful about that. I’m an American with a lot of financial privilege and social capital, but it was Roa who taught me and helped me grow.
“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” – Roald Dahl.
I believe in magic. Not in the Harry Potter, wand-waving sense of the word. Rather, I believe that the world has a lot of special, wonderful people and ideas and experiences. If you take the time to get to know people, not the CEOs or the highly educated privileged few, but any person from any of the millions of walks of life, you will discover heartbreak and hardship, compassion and love, longing and joy. You will discover magic.
I will forever be grateful to Roa, and can only hope to one day come to terms with my lack of giving back to him, and my failure to understand even the fundamental aspects of our relationship, including why I wrote this blog post.
Roa’s ring is from his mother to remember her by and, if need be, sell for money to get back to Cambodia to see his family again.