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March 23, 2011
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The rough, cotton strands circle my wrist, round and round. Grayed and worn, their presence is so familiar to me that it is often forgotten. However, on the occasion that I do look down, and carefully draw my fingers across the fraying material, they present to me a very tangible reminder of a very intangible memory. And this means the world to me. I will keep them on.


The plane ride was long. I had committed myself to this trip many months before, without the slightest hesitation, but suddenly, now in the process of leaving all that was familiar and comforting to me, I realized that I might not be fully prepared for all that it would entail. A month was a long time to be somewhere new. We arrived in Bangkok very early in the morning, when faint city lights were all that was visible through a dark mud. The flattened city stretched for miles across the black horizon. Only the next day, in the daylight, did I see how the streets were painted with poverty. The gazes of a million faces tore at me, accusing me of my fortune. It wasn’t the kind of greeting that I had expected, and I held my breath, praying on what was to come.

Eight hours away from the city, our van turned from the highway onto a dirt road, carrying all fifteen of us eager Americans toward our destination. I did not know then how the village of Phapang was waiting for me. We pulled into a grassy field. I strained to see the lively crowd of young children, clutching homemade signs and flowers. The moment that the van pulled to a halt, Arworn, the English teacher, threw open the heavy sliding door, and with a joyful scream, pulled me into her arms. I was evoked to tears by a stranger who knew no more of me than I knew of her. In spite of this, she already held me in her heart. My homesickness evaporated as I stepped forward, teary eyed, toward the overwhelming crowd of smiles.


Our house was a simple wooden room. Vibrant sunrays streamed in through open shutters, illuminating quiet dust that floated in the air. The sturdy teak floor was smooth, despite the fact that it was speckled with various cracks and holes. The bathroom was a dark cement closet, and the shower, a basin filled with cool water. As you opened the back door, a soft breeze would float through and if you were careful enough not to step on the weaker boards, you could walk out to see the stunning view of the mountains looking over the rice fields as they reflected back the sky. Ignoring the ants, it was a paradise like no other, and I could have sat out there for hours, tracing the mountains with my gaze.

After still, silent nights in the security of our bug nets, we would witness the village awaking with the rising of the sun. As the Thai elders began their long day of work, accompanying sounds would streak through our windows, intermixing with the golden sun. Looking back now, those sounds, which awoke me too early each morning, were nothing less than a blessing and a luxury, a hum that is now often missed.


We met the kids at the school and they walked us around to the three Buddhist temples of Phapang. My hand was taken by a Thai girl with big ears and her friend, with beautiful, smooth hair hanging to her shoulders. All their names sounded the same, but they led me without worry. In Thailand it takes only a bit of kindness to make a friend.


Days and days of bike rides down through the carved out streets of Phapang, the warm air and greeting smiles reminding me of how lucky I was to be there. The beautiful mountains continued to stand proudly above the village, sheltering the most beautiful place on earth. It seemed so right that such beauty was reserved here in Phapang, to be viewed everyday by the people of the village, who undoubtedly deserved it the most. My struggle to be all that was expected of me was soothed by the children who innocently hugged my legs, and an elder who shared her umbrella with me as we walked in light, morning rain. As I watched the people work, bent over in the rice fields I became even more in awe of the appreciation held in their ever-present smiles. If only I had such a hope, if only the world could hold such a happiness.


Late one night, when we were just about to crawl into our bug nets, we heard a voice calling from the yard. Leaning out of our makeshift door, I saw Arworn waving her hands from the street. She had brought us a new bicycle, as we had explained to her after Hill house that one of ours had broken. It was dark and late, and yet she always refused to rest until we were absolutely comfortable and supplied, even when it meant only a few hours of sleep for her. Many days, she awoke at first light, working tirelessly in the rice fields before her day of teaching. Her life was devoted to the students that she loved, and she never faltered on this mission. I waved and graciously thanked her several times before reentering the house. There was something in the people here that was so different, so special.


Our hands slapped together in an increasingly fast pattern. I was driven to a smile as I struggled to keep up with the quick tempo. Gun’s eyes stayed focused on our hands, but her lips were forming a smile too. Her beautiful black hair hung to her shoulders as it had on the day that I had first met her. Our clapping crashed together into a mess, mixed with our joyful laughter. One of us had lost count. This game, however silly or childish, was a connection between cultures, a connection between lifestyles, and a connection between friends.


Students began filtering into the schoolyard more than half an hour early. The once silent yard became flooded with friendly chatter. When we taught English, in the small, open classrooms, the students did all they could to learn. Seated in lightweight plastics chairs that were scattered behind an array of small desks, they were still noisy children, but ones who believed in their schooling. No one made them come, and yet nothing could have kept them away. An education was one thing that this tiny village could afford to give them. Sentence after sentence, game after game, we strived to bring them a language that was capable of changing their lives.
The days were simple and light. What started out as awkward conversations at Hill House turned into nights of screams and laughter with the students. It was as if Phapang had always been my home.


The tile floor provided a refreshing contrast to the hot Thai air. An and I sat next to each other in the dance hall, carefully drawing “I love you” down each others’ arms with an old ballpoint pen. Looking into her face, I admired her spirit. Robbie had told us of her family situation: her father had contracted AIDs while working in Bangkok, and on coming back had given it to her mother. In spite of these burdens, An’s face was always lit by an illuminating glow of hope and youth. When she finished her drawing, she looked up and smiled. Our communication was limited, but we sat happily in each others’ company, not wanting anything more.
It was not hard to realize how much I took for granted. Nights away from Phapang made me love it more and I breathed in the damp air knowing that I was not safe to stay in this heaven. I started to swing Gun in every hug I gave her. I had been given a gift that I could never appreciate enough.


It was the big day. All the Thai students, usually lightly dressed, were layered in long, heavy clothing. Bri overheard Arworn warning the students to listen for the word “…Deep! D-E-E-P! Deep!” Naturally, the students of Phapang could not swim; there was no place to learn.
Our trip up to the waterfall was slow, but refreshing. We trustingly followed the students, familiar with this exotic jungle, over slippery river rocks and up muddy trails. Minor bruises and scrapes were ignored when we reached our destination. A tiny waterfall and pond lay pristine and isolated before us. After taking their trusted hands on the trip up, the students hesitantly took ours into the water. A sincere vulnerability and innocence came out as they let go of their fear for the dangerous water, and trusted us to keep them safe. Holding hands, we entered the pool together.
Soon the pond was lively, and kids were sliding down the naturally carved out waterslide. The nervousness ebbed away, replaced by enjoyment and fun. Light screams came from the girls, reaching towards each other, as they slipped into the rippling waters. The eyes of a small boy widened with surprise as he slowly slid down a slimy slope that he had attempted to climb up. You couldn’t have watched the carefree play without smiling. Following the crystal water as it splashed among the many lit up faces, I knew why I was here in Phapang. And I do not think there was a person there who did not.
The trust was exchanged again as Doe held my hand on the way down the mud slope, smiling as I gave a slight scream at my slipping feet. At this moment I was unsure of who was really teaching whom.


The elders of Phapang gathered to tie prayer bracelets around our wrists. They handled us with such care and love, though we were still almost strangers to them. That night, small hot air balloons were lit and sent up into the air. Looking up into the warm sky we watched them float far, far away.


On the day we left, I think we hugged for hours. I broke down into tears in Arworn’s arms, loving so much this woman who gave everything she could to these students, to us. I have never met anyone so compassionate. She does not know how I think of her, as a mother, as an angel. I swung my necklace around An’s neck, giving her the one thing I knew she associated me with the most. I hope she will think of me every day. I know I think of her.

I held Gun for the longest. It was a hard goodbye. I do not know if I will see her again. As I entered the car I pressed against the window signing “I love you” to her and blowing kisses through the glass. When Amanda pulled open her window I reached through to Gun’s hand. I still see her through that dusty, sun-lit window, right next to me, and yet already worlds apart. I cried as we pulled away, keeping Gun’s beautiful face in my mind for the eight-hour ride back to Bangkok.


I tell people that I traveled to Thailand, but I really traveled to Phapang. I traveled to Gun, to An, to Arworn, to the mountains that looked over hard working rice planters and their children, over a place so special and so important. To a place where the people hold an appreciation, hope, and kindness so strong that it overpowers any disadvantage that they may have. They are a flame that lights up a small part of this world. I found in this place something more important. Something that matters more than anything else I know, that will always matter more.
I will remember these Thai people and what they have taught me as I take my life down many different paths. Just as the children holding my hand could approach the murky waters, I feel that in holding theirs, I can wholly approach this unclear world. The small connections made there, so intangible now, live in the thinning cotton strands around my wrist, in my memory of Gun’s face, and in my heart. As the balloons float away, I will forever be looking up into the darkness and see the flame of Phapang floating up toward the heavens.

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