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Magic

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.

The ring is from Rem’s mother for Rem to remember her by. If need be he can sell it in order to get home to see his family again.

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.

Spontaneity, Seclusion and Sweets

Even though my friends and I had a few papers due, we still decided we could head to the beach for the weekend. Because it is far better to work on an island with white sand beaches than in hot, sweltering Khon Kaen (weekend temperatures reached 111 degrees). So we threw in some towels, swim suits and lecture notes and headed out 6 hours after making the decision to go.

It was a total of 31 hours on buses, taxis, and ferries to get from Khon Kaen to Koh Samet (an island on the Gulf of Thailand) and back; 13 one way and 18 hours back. And I ended up in yet another Thai clinic. But it was worth every single minute.

What I love most about Koh Samet was the lack of farang (foreigner/white) men with Thai women. True, sometimes it’s a real relationship, but a lot of times farang men purchase a woman for a night or for the weekend as a “companion”. I didn’t really see that at Koh Samet; it was more couples and families, and the dread-lock and elephant-pant wearing backpacking crowd was also significantly lacking. All of this led to a way more open, friendly atmosphere.

 

But there were a fair amount of couples and families, so we motorbiked down the island a ways in search of a more secluded, private beach. We found this in a fancypants resort’s private beach.

If you walk through the resort like you know what you’re doing, no one will question you.

Anyways, it was a large, sprawling resort and there were probably five other people on the beach so we spent most of the day swimming, napping and reading books.

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Practically a private beach! Were we in our right to be there? Maybe….

That night, and most of the next morning, were spent writing and editing papers, with a  little adrenaline kick. That came as me hastily fleeing my hostel’s shower stall after I discovered I had showered with an evil-looking, potentially poisonous frog at chest height two feet away from me. But in my haste to flee, I cut my hand on the shower stall’s rusted handle and had to go to the island’s clinic to get a tetanus booster shot. It appears like visiting island’s hospitals and clinics has turned into a habit!

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I’m baaaaack!

We also spent a good chunk of time wandering the town looking for Mango Sticky Rice. Now that mangos are in season, this is probably the most delicious thing I have ever eaten; the texture is perfect, and the sticky rice is drizzled in sweetened condensed milk and coconut milk (as near as I can tell) in the perfect blend of sweet sugar and carbohydrates. I ate three plates of this delicacy on Sunday alone, and I regret absolutely nothing.

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Overall, it was an amazingly fun, restful and productive weekend full of warm sun, ocean breezes and mango sticky rice.

Food Poisoning and Human Kindness

It all started one Wednesday in Bangkok. I “played Songkran”, which mainly consisted of running around the streets of Bangkok, laughing and accidentally swallowing copious amounts of water while getting into water fights with strangers celebrating the Thai New Year. The swallowing water kicked off an unfortunate chain of events that, almost a week later, had me waking up with 4 or 5 old Thai grandmothers all kneeling over me, kneading my arms and legs.

Let’s back up.

On Thursday (day one, right after Bangkok) my friend and I traveled to Koh Chang, a beautiful island on the Gulf of Thailand. Two hours after arrival, I threw up the first time of many. All signs pointed to food poisoning, which usually has a recovery time of  24 to 48 hours. Except that wasn’t my case. Over the next four of five days, I ate 5 crackers and a mango and lost five and a half pounds while lying on a sandy beach.

After the 18 hour travel day on Sunday (day four) involving a Song Tao, van, ferry, taxi, bus, and another taxi from the island to Khon Kaen, my journey found me on the back of my room mate’s motorcycle to the hospital to get some tests done to make sure I didn’t have a horrible infection or virus and also to get an IV to start the rehydration process.

The hospital was a miraculous place. They got me on an IV because of my severe dehydration, forced me to drink 30mL of KCl, and ran a bunch of tests.

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The Miraculous Drip Machine.

I checked out of the hospital the next morning feeling a lot better but still with a cold/general sickness. My Ajaan (mentor/professor) picked me up at the hospital with an overnight bag my room mate packed for me, and we headed straight to a four-day homestay in a rural village 3 hours away.

The next day, I decided to skip swimming with the villagers in lieu of a long nap because apparently healing from severe dehydration, malnutrition, and general sickness takes more than one night in a hospital. But then the grandmothers in the village decided I had slept too long. I woke up on the tile floor (beds aren’t common) to four, maybe five old grandmothers all kneading my arms and legs, one peering into my face. This was definitely the weirdest way I have ever woken up. They then proceeded to ask me if I had taken medication (the hospital had given me a gift bag full of it) and how I was feeling and do I need to go back to the hospital? Deciding I was too hot, they took a wet towel and pretty much gave me a sponge bath, all the while muttering things in Thai and occasionally tying strings around my wrist as part of the Bai See ceremony for luck and healing, never once letting me sit up or protest too much.

And that’s the beautiful part; from the nurses trying really hard to communicate with me in Tanglish (Thai-English blend) to my host mom constantly handing me water bottles to the village grandmothers kneading my arms and legs, concern and love radiated from people during the healing process. In some cases, all they knew was that I was sick, not even my name or why or how I was sick. And that’s the miracle of human kindness and compassion, I think. People simply went out of their way to help someone in need. No questions asked.