When I first returned to Canada from my four-month volunteer term with Isara, my greatest fear was that once I settled back into my old daily life, I would start to forget what it had been like to exist in Thailand with a completely different routine and a completely different purpose.
I arrived this past Thursday at Vancouver--not my hometown, but the closest city with an international airport. I arrived at the airport without anyone to greet me, for convenience's sake, but went straight to my little brother's apartment where I am now temporarily staying until I return to Prince George. My first reaction upon being greeted by my brother in his usual manner (poking his head out his apartment window in response to me calling up to him from the back alley) was a mixture of happiness and dismay: happiness upon seeing him again, and dismay that the relationships I had been building in Nong Khai had suddenly been left behind for the familiar faces I had known before. For a moment I felt like I had been reset back to the way things were four months ago.
There have been little changes here and there that provide some relief--changes outside of myself that reassure me of the passage of time: the rearranged furniture in my brother's apartment, my dad's impressive new moustache, and even the bittersweet news that the 21-year-old family van has finally been declared unsafe for the road and has found its home in the scrapyard. But it's still hard to wrap my mind around the fact that those people, those rooms, those streets I saw every day in Nong Khai are suddenly so far away. It's been easy to slip back into old patterns of behaviour with old friends--but every time I tell someone about some experience I had in Thailand, it's another chance to refresh my memory and bring my Thai experiences into existence in the world I'm currently inhabiting.
It's not that I'm worried about forgetting the specifics. Rather, I feel like I was changed while I was there--especially during the month that James and I travelled around Isaan, the East, and the North--and I want those changes to stay with me. Back in Thailand I didn't feel like the same person I had been before my arrival. It was only four months, but my opportunities were such that I feel like I was able to try a completely different modus operandi than my usual--and I liked it. While I was there I feel like I gained a new appreciation for openness, random chance, and risk-taking that I didn't have before.
There were so many instances when I realized a single coincidence could have a profound effect on one's circumstances. Every little opportunity left untaken could take one in a completely life-altering direction. The most profound experiences I had with Isara happened in March when James and I were travelling around Thailand for the Free Volunteer program--and yet there were so many ways that trip could never have happened. James could have left in December like he had originally planned, which would mean we never would have met at all (I came in January). After that, we were both planning on leaving at the end of February--and if Kirk hadn't asked James to stay, and if we hadn't both been willing to extend our stay by another two months, we never would have undergone the trip.
So many experiences could have been lost. It was not only a personal journey in which we tested our bravery and resourcefulness by venturing out into rural Thailand with limited knowledge and language, but also a cultural eye-opener during which we had the privilege of staying in several different Thai homes and experiencing what people really live like in rural areas. We met so many amazing people along the way, including various teachers who had differing opinions on the the Thai education system, as well as young students who, when they overcame their shyness, showed so much vibrancy and friendliness toward us.
Being open to opportunity was not only important with big decisions, but during our trip itself. If we hadn't been willing to go along with whatever was thrown at us, for example, we wouldn't have visited Kalasin Pittayasan, where we met teenaged students who toured us around the town and took us out for Korean BBQ that night; at times like this we really experienced how communication could happen despite language barriers if people are willing to put 100% of their effort into understanding each other. We also wouldn't have visited two of the three schools in Surin that now appear on the Free Volunteer Thailand website, and met their passionate young English teachers. Being at the mercy of Thai hosts also yielded many exciting activities: climbing a breathtaking chedi in Roi Et on a windy night, hosting an English lesson on stage in front of over a hundred students, riding in a fishing boat up and down a mangrove-lined canal in Trat...
One thing that I think has affected me profoundly is the realization that there are alternatives to the lifestyle we are all taught to expect. You can go to places where life is different from what you're used to, and you don't have to think of them as exotic retreats--those places can become like a home. When I first got to Nong Khai, the Isara Learning Center (with its hot showers and Western toilet) was my adventure away from my Canadian home. But then when I was riding buses and staying as a guest around a dozen provinces, after a while I started to think back to the ILC as a safehaven that I could always return to if I was really lost. The adventure had expanded, and during that month Isara, by contrast, was my anchor as I floated adrift. Coming back was sweetened by the familiar faces we could return to, whether that was other volunteers, Kirk and Nok, my beloved students in 6A, or the som tam lady next door! Back in December, a homelike place in Thailand didn't even occur to me as something I would ever have. I must admit there were times when I was homesick for a nice, cold Canadian winter. However, as I sit here now, all I can think about is the next time I'll be able to sit across the table from one of my Nong Khai friends, eating hotpot by the Mekong and talking about teaching, Thai language, life, the universe, and everything.
I hope that day isn't too far away!