One Thailand memory I cherish took place at a home with about ten people sitting around outside. Friends, children, parents and grandparents gathered for a morning meal. Eager to show hospitality, they invited us to eat, excitedly shoving sticky rice, raw pork fat dipped in chili sauce and bottles of beer into our hands. Even though it was 8:15 am, we sat down and ate up. They were curious about us, asking where we were from and urging us to eat until full. A genuine sense of community and empathy exuded.
My local hero Isara says that whenever he runs out of money, he just goes for a walk around the village and someone feeds him. Despite the fact that Ta Ma Fai Wan is a relatively poor place, no one goes hungry. Everyone is always sharing food and nothing is wasted. In this foreign territory, we are made to feel so welcome, so accepted. Here, food is an offering of friendship and just strolling through town we receive bananas, star fruit, tempoo, pork, rice and beer. All without cost or reason. Simply because we are here. Such generosity reminds you of the human responsibility. We must help others.
At 9 am, it was back to the temple to teach some kindergarteners. Mel and I made clay animals and colored, trying to get the kids to open up. But how? Do I speak to them in Thai or English? They speak to me in Thai and I don't understand. I speak to them in English and they don't respond. Most of the kids still don't know how to react to us. They are confused about how to relate. So am I. Days later, I discovered that the key to a kindergarten best friend is song and dance. On Friday, Mel and I performed our rendition of Skinna Marinka Dinky Dink, which was basically just us singing Chan Rak Thur (I love you) and spinning around in circles. The kids loved it, cheering us on and clapping to the beat. One thing that children of all ages and cultures appreciate is enthusiasm. In return, they give unconditional, inexhaustible love. On this particular day, we were smothered with affection. The kids ran to greet us, hugged us, then held our hands.
Later that day, we visited the children at a village primary school. We sat down on the benches and waited for the kids to get out for recess. Isara says they will form a line in front of him, and they do. Every time he visits, he asks the children to make a promise: a commitment to say hello to people in the community when walking to school, to thank the trees for their fruit plus the sun and earth for their gifts. He makes them decide to give themselves a better, more-fulfilling life. They line up to tell Isara ways that they have lived out their promises. In return, Isara gives them small toys, symbols of confidence and positive reinforcement. Today, it's animal-shaped pencil sharpeners. The kids go wild over them. Isara visits the school often to inject positive energy into the community. The children feel his big heart and flock to him.
Over the weekend, we celebrated the annual Papa festival with the community. During this celebration, villagers present the monks with new robes, gifts and money. Traditionally, the cash goes to assist the local temple with maintenance, but the monks of Ta Ma Fai Wan decided to donate all the proceeds to the radio station: 103.75 FM. The day before, we helped the monks prepare for the festival, hanging banners and blowing up balloons. The day of the fest, we volunteered at the basketball tent and watched traditional Thai performances displaying delicacy and elegance. We ate copious amounts of free food and danced with lively women who rivaled our moves. (I was told I'm a sexy dancer.) We were pulled into a parade around the temple, recruited to hand out prizes on stage and always surrounded by beautiful souls. The best part of all was I felt included in the festival. I was not merely a bystander watching this community come together and come alive; I was a participant. I belonged.
On our last full day in Ta Ma Fai Wan, we built a mud wall for the entrance to Ban Sai Roong. After we walked home from breakfast (nom tuk with sticky rice), the village kids started to follow us. I sensed they had this strange intuition that we needed their help. Now instead of having 3 people to build the wall, we had 20. And every one of them was eager to be involved in the construction process. A beautiful collaboration. A one-of-a-kind creation. It's amazing to me how self-assured these children are. They take pride in showing me how things work and treat me as an equal. With patience and understanding, they show me how to make mud into bricks, tell me when and where to wash my feet, plus take me under their wing. Our mutual respect transcends age and cultural differences. Reminds me that we are all teachers.
For our goodbye dinner, we ate fish with noodles and chili sauce, wrapped in pieces of cabbage, at the mud house with Isara. He told us more about Buddhist tradition and his plans to visit India to study Tantra. We talked about death and reincarnation, the futility of worrying and the importance of helping others, of giving. His demeanor is different tonight, a bit despondent. It breaks his heart to see us go. He makes us promise to come back in the future. Isara says we can call him if we need him, any time, for anything. He will always be there for us. I am moved. Such affection and devotion from a man I've known for less than a week. He says he feels like we have met before, perhaps in a past life. I feel the same way. We are so familiar to each other. Our interaction is devoid of all roles, all formalities, all fallacies. It's just us: two souls who dance to the same song, even half way around the world.
The next day while waiting for a bus to Chiang Mai, Mel and I reflect on our time in Ta Ma Fai Wan, how it has changed us. The villagers did not treat us like we were anything special, nor did they exclude or reject us. We were simply treated as friends they had known and loved for years. In the village, the people live simply, poorly. There are many things they go without. It is the polar opposite of the lifestyle that surrounds me in America, where everything is commercialized, industrialized and excessive. Our automatic reaction to this poverty is that these people must be worse off than us. They must be destitute. I bear witness to the error of this mindset. Yes, the people go without A/C, computers, internet and toilets with running water. Yet in exchange, they have solidarity, quality of life and a community full of loving, generous people. They are free. These people smile with the most sincere emotion, their eyes sparkle, their souls are alive and their hearts are on fire. I would give up many things to feel this way every day.
Josalin Saffer is a writer, photographer, and ESL teacher from Atlanta, Georgia. She now lives in Thailand. Continually traveling the world in search of new places, new faces, new ways to live and new ways to love, she journals passionately on her website found at www.jaiyenjocumentary.wordprss.com. Her inclusion in the Road Babe Dispatches column reflects only the view of Lyn's "editorial staff."