Caitlin Navratil, 131 YinD
I stand, sweating (as ususal), as my counterpart loads the car. Our drive was going to be an absurd twelve hours from Reconnect back to Ngim, so there was no time to dawdle. As I stood and waited for our imminent departure, I watched my fellow volunteers hugging each other goodbye, packing up, and moving on to the next phase of this journey. Next May is the next scheduled conference to all be together, almost a year from now.
You are a mountain, I think to myself, and you are strong enough for this. I pause, why does that sound so inspiring and familiar? I guess I must have channeled that scene from Mulan:
“No matter how the wind howls, the mountain cannot bow to it.”
I knew being able to quote most Disney movies would eventually come through for me.
Reconnect was a wild two weeks. A conference purposely scheduled after our whirlwind first three months of service, it was a time to check in, reconnect with our friends, speak English, and learn how to do our jobs better. It was also a time of change for me – as friendships evolved, some looked pretty differently than they had during PST. I am a mountain.
On the long ride home (and between naps), my mind flashed back to a few snapshots of Reconnect probably forever seared on my brain.
A bottle of champagne is thrust into the air as the packed hotel room quiets to a low hum. A volunteer suggests that we each toast to the week we’ve had, the journey we’re on together, and to the friendships forged by fire. Each person says a few words, takes a swig, and passes the bottle. Someone observes that now we’re really Thai – each drinking from the same bottle.
We pull up in the taxi and look out a smeared window, there it is. After making an impulse decision to spend our day at Dreamworld (Thailand’s version of Valley Fair), we were literally vibrating with excitement. The day was filled with roller coasters, laughter, ice cream, haunted houses, snow tubing (a miracle here in Thailand), and general freedom to be goofy and wear shorts. My heart felt so full with the new friendships I’d cultivated and this wild adventure we’re on together.
We walk past a vendor selling fruit smoothies on one of our nightly excursions to the walking street near our hotel. Thoughout this week, we were closer to fast food than most of us will ever be at site; we pass the Burger King and Starbucks to find ourselves sitting down to dinner around plates of rice. For a moment, I forget that it takes me four modes of transportation to get to where my friends will be this time next week. For now, we’re together. And I want to cherish every moment.
A bump in the road shakes me back to reality. Reconnect is over – now, it’s time to get to work. We have twenty more months here, and I feel like I’ve just begun. I’m just settling into a rhythm, just learning all of my student’s names, just starting to dream about projects to do. The obstacles seem higher now that I’ve seen them up close, and the welcome embrace seems more comfortable now that I’ve settled into it. It’s funny how quickly a place becomes home, but even home feels slightly different after Reconnect.
And it’s not just home that feels different, I feel different. I’m a different version of me than I was when I arrived. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I can see some of the effects of this growth. My co-teacher at the high school took me to lunch and got us back to school 20 minutes after my next class had already started. Three months ago, I would’ve had a cow. Or a panic attack. Maybe both? Mooing while breathing into a paper bag? Who knows. But this week’s version of me shrugged, adjusted lesson plans, and rolled with it.
I can also feel that I’m stronger. I’m better at being alone. Cultural miscommunications that would have hurt my feelings before just roll off my back. I’m learning to hear “you look fat today,” and interpret it as “I care about you and am glad you’ve had good food to eat.” I’m choosing the benefit of the doubt, choosing to smile through miscommunications. I’m less frustrated when I don’t understand. My curiosity is back – I don’t just want to speak enough Thai to get by. I want to participate in conversations at lunch and talk with my students.
I’m determined. I’m strong. I am a mountain.
But I’m not going to lie, twenty more months seems daunting. Some days I panic, asking myself what the heck I’m doing here, what am I even qualified to teach, what impact I will leave that it would have been worth two years of my life.
But then my three-year-old host brother comes to sit next to me while he watches his video and looks up at me every time he laughs. A yai (grandma) from my elderly school putt-putts along on her motorcycle next to me while I run for a few moments, just long enough to give me a crooked-tooth grin and a thumbs up. I pull up to school and am greeted by a chorus of “maa leow!” (she’s here!) and smiling faces. A kru (teacher) from one of my many schools makes me naam prik oong (a popular Northern Thai dish) just because she heard from someone in town that I like it.
I’m so loved here, and I feel so much love for the people here.
And what is two years when every day is so filled with love?
Time to dig in for the long haul. Here goes nothing.