Farang With the Red Backpack
I look down at my now calloused feet, newly adorned with straight crisscross tan lines as a result of wearing the same sandals everyday for the past month, and I begin to think of how I can possibly try to convey what my time was in Chiang Rai with The SOLD Project.
To give a bit of context: I’m from San Francisco. I left my job at the end of June and boarded a plane to Thailand later that evening. I had been itching for a new adventure and wanting to go back to the country that had captivated me two years prior on a college trip. Further, I was hoping to uproot myself from the busyness of the city that I knew all too well and force myself into a month of solitude, of rice fields, of an unfamiliar culture, and with that, a very different pace of life than I was used to.
Slamming forcefully on the breaks as if to avoid a collision was what my first couple weeks felt like. I had been working 60-70 hour weeks and moving into a new apartment prior to my trip, and daily life in Chiang Rai was nowhere near that speed. I found myself with so much time. I was accustomed to always asking myself in each free moment, ‘What am I doing? What do I need to be doing? What needs to be completed?’ and I didn’t have the answers to these questions. I had to detach my identity from what I was ‘doing’ and just stop, just simply be.
Go ahead, read for a couple hours at the coffee shop (that now knows your name and order) every morning. Go ahead and sit in the temple next door and let your eyes wander over the intricate paintings that tell stories of reincarnation from rabbit to snake to tiger to enlightenment. Go ahead and take off your watch, it was giving you a bad tan line anyways. Go ahead and ride your motorbike a little slower as you rumble past rice field after rice field and local faces turn to watch the farang with the red backpack pass by once again. Go ahead and wander, follow the signs for a waterfall and when you end up on top of a mountain with no waterfall insight, laugh, take a photo, and enjoy the view. Traveling alone, in a country where I can’t decipher a noodle bowl from durian on a menu can come across as terrifying, but it wasn’t, it wasn’t at all. It was in these moments that I became alive, exhilarated, and grew in much confidence.
My volunteer role for the month was to help with the after school program on Tuesdays – Fridays and with English class on Saturdays, as well as assisting the staff with smaller projects. I had prepared a detailed Google doc with art activity plans, a few outdoor games and how to incorporate English into everything for each day that I would be with the kids. And out of the whole month, I led only one of those art activities. It’s actually quite comical now that I look back on it all. I came in with a specific plan very much in the Western way of thinking, and quickly learned that Thai culture doesn’t really operate in this way. Communication does not always happen, and when it does, it doesn’t always happen clearly (or in English). I quickly came to find that my very detailed farang way, was not necessarily the ‘right way’ or the ‘only way’.
Each day as the kids rode in on their bicycles, jumping off, quickly forming their hands together, and offering me a sawatdeekah with beaming faces, I came to find that the details for the afternoon were no longer necessary. Regardless of what I had planned and regardless of the many miscommunications, the kids were so happy to simply be at the center, to be with the staff members that cared so deeply for them, and this was evident. There was never a shortage of laughter from both the staff and the kids. There was an endless amount of energy for one silly game after another, filling the outdoor amphitheater with the echoes of feet running from side to side, followed by the commotion of yelling, chatter that my ears found to love but not fully understand, and oh, so much joy. I found that there was more though. There was something greater than outdoor games, computer time, art projects, and dancing.
There is a deep passion in each of the staff members at The SOLD Project, a fire that drives them to care for these kids in remarkable ways. You can see this fire in the eyes of the kids that come after school each day as they look up at the staff with so much respect. You can feel this fire in the hands of the younger ones as they cling tightly to your arm, knowing that they are safe here; they are protected. The laughter paused for a moment one day when one of the students lost his father. I watched as the staff came together for this boy, went to his home that day, and attended the funeral the next. A group was visiting the center one day while I was there, and someone asked Tawee about staff dynamics. He replied quite simply, “We’re a family here. We look after one another, we support each other.” While so much more could have been said, I believe he grasped the root of it all: this staff is a family, a family not only to each other but to every child that rides up that dirt road through the center’s gate.
The sois which were once unfamiliar now know my steps every evening as I walk back to my guest house. I didn’t really know what to expect from spending a month here, and I’m still slowly wrapping my mind around the experience that now seemed to have lasted only an instant. While the language barrier was one of the greater challenges on this trip, it proved to reveal the many universal languages present in this culture. I came to find that you don’t need to understand the fast paced tones ringing in your ears when someone passes you a mound of rice, ladles up a bowl of soup, and hands you a large plate of fish (all bones fully intact), as you sit around a table overflowing with heavenly aromas and laughter that seems to erupt every few minutes to a joke that someone shared across from you. You don’t even have to understand the joke, or have it translated as it’s impossible not to feel the contagious joy and begin laughing yourself. The languages of food, hospitality, laughter, and even sass didn’t need to be explained. Towards the end, one of the staff members began to tell me, ‘Just sit down, and food will appear in front of you.’ It was this blunt statement that summed up their endless hospitality, and the many moments (and meals) that I will treasure.
I’ll miss seeing the faces of each child that I had the privilege of meeting everyday at 4pm. I’ll miss the meals spent sitting outside in a large circle where balls of sticky rice were passed my way and bowls were offered with anxious eyes as I took a large bite of something far too spicy, for which everyone would burst into laughter as I grabbed for my water. I’ll miss the easy-going, slow-paced, carefree environment of this culture. I’ll miss the smells of coconut desserts, fried bananas, noodle soups, and eggs frying in oil on the side of the street. I’ll miss looking out the office windows to an endless green landscape of rice fields glimmering with water from the downpour the evening before, with farmers bent over, their hands working tirelessly. I’ll miss riding a motorbike on the left side of the road and the freedom that comes with it. I will miss this season, each person that I encountered, and all that it has held for me. I know that I will continue to think of Thailand often, and I know that at some point I will return, hopefully knowing a few more words in Thai. Until then, I’ll hang the painting that one of the girls made on my wall, I’ll attempt to make a curry, I’ll go visit the one Theravada temple in SF across from Golden Gate park, and I’ll burn a few sticks of incense, maybe turn on my heater and humidifier, close my eyes and mentally travel back.