In the midst of embarking on the most incredible journey of my young life I stepped on my flight with the clothes on my back and a small bag of medications- without a baggage claim ticket in sight. I was on my way to spend three weeks in Northern Thailand living in hill tribes and working with the locals on community projects. This wasn’t my first international service expedition but this one was unique. The program was appropriately named Come With Nothing, Go Home Rich and I was expected to live off a humble budget, for my entirely new wardrobe and other supplies, all while living in remote hill tribes village.
After a grueling forty eight hours of travel, my small group and I arrived in Chiang Rai Thailand. To demonstrate just how remote our homestay villages were consider this: we drove three hours from the city and from there we hiked twenty kilometers though the jungle and against the elements to reach a Karen village. Culture shock officially arrived when we all were introduced to the murky tub of water that was our “shower” and our “toilet” which was a hole in a ground or as the Thai call it, a squat toilet. I lived with an adorable elderly couple in their humble hut where grandma would spoil us with ginger tea and sticky rice and grandpa would entertain us with his guitar. We didn’t speak Thai speak and they didn’t speak English but that never hindered our fun. I slept in the kitchen with rice one side, corn on the other, and bushels of hanging garlic above me.
In just three days, my modest sized group and I built four bathrooms from scratch. We plowed the land, collected rocks from down the river, hauled sand from up the hill, and mixed countless bags of cement. Rain poured down and heat struck upon us, but we fought on. Leeches nipped at our ankles and I personally fell into the rice field twice. Once we chopped and nailed our collection of bamboo for the walls the four families with the fruits our labor. Their facial expressions at that moment were overwhelming. Simultaneously, I felt foolish- we joked and complained about squat toilets all week and now these beyond appreciative families were offering us chickens, hand-sewn bracelets, and tears of joy for the same squat toilet.
The next weeks were filled with more enlightenment and growth. I ate fried grasshoppers for breakfast and rode elephants through the jungle after lunch. We tiled and began the expansion of a community center and removed and replaced two kilometers worth of water piping. But beyond of these positive deeds I became aware of a peculiar situation- I never saw any girls in the villages that were my age. My research, unveiled the heartbreaking truth that, because of the poverty in the villages, girls as young as ten were being sent by their families to Bangkok to “work in bars”. The idea still sickens. With no money and no education these young girls were destined to live an inhumane existence and the same went for the Burmese women refugees. The most emotionally demanding day for me was when we taught at the local school and I saw clusters of beautiful little girls that were full of life. Their sweet faces were consumed by the mental image I had of their future lives working the streets of Bangkok as the victims of sexual and drug abuse. I knew that when I got home, it was my duty to help hinder the human trafficking crisis in South East Asia.
Needless to say, I did come home rich. I learned to travel and survive off good friends rather than the shallowness of material possessions. I discovered that the cultural walls and language barriers that plague our world, though seemingly indestructible, aren’t immune to the universal emotions. The power of tears to express sorrow or the brightness of a smile to convey joy are intangibles that we as global citizens all understand. My adventures abroad to satisfy my international duty have begun to educate me in what I aspire to master in college- the fine art of communicating with the rest of the world through love and knowledge instead of ignorance and hate.
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