Some experiences leave you feeling a tremendous sense of purpose while reminding you that you are actually quite small. My first trip to Thailand was such an experience.
Part of settling in that first week was finding the headquarters of a nonprofit called Cultural Canvas Thailand. Seriously, take a minute to check them out. They do really awesome work with orphaned and disabled children. I met a diverse group of volunteers, who literally traveled from all corners of the world for this experience. They were from many walks of life, searching for different – but inevitably the same – things.
The guest house we moved into after leaving the Goodwill was right across the street from the CCT house, which was next to the Sacred Cow statue (that’s the only thing you really need to remember if you get lost – “take me to the sacred cow!” unless, of course, you don’t live anywhere near the cow, in which case you will have to find a different landmark). It is located on Wualai Road, in the Silver District. Lots of fun things happen on that road, my favorite being the Saturday Night Market.
I regret not having the time to get involved with CCT’s art program, but I was there fulfilling a public health internship that had me traveling throughout the Northern Provinces. Another awesome thing about CCT is that they will place you with other nonprofits in Chiang Mai, such as The Life Skills Development Foundation (RakDek).
In case you didn’t click on the link, TLSDF is an NGO that seeks to mitigate HIV/AIDS stigma and other related social issues. They are funded by organizations such as Save the Children and Johnson & Johnson. As the name suggests, TLSDF teaches life skills to families impacted by HIV/AIDS, so that they may live full, productive lives. TLSDF also attempts to reduce discrimination through community outreach and education.
So what did I actually do there?
Since I can’t possibly fit three months into a single post (without you all getting distracted by some photography or food blog and thus clicking away so you won’t have to read anymore), I will post individual events along my journey and link them here. There will be more photos than writing, I promise. Not excellent, quality photography, mind you. I still had the same shoddy camera that I used in Laos.
Essentially, I was taking over for a lovely American girl who had been living and working in Chiang Mai for three years. Our responsibilities included attending conferences and workshops, writing annual reports, resubmitting grant proposals…basically, anything that required proficiency in English writing. Her Thai was excellent too, and she helped me assimilate with some tips that seem insignificant but were extremely useful. For example:
- the salad lady comes by the office once a week; her salads cost 25 baht a bag (less than $1) and make an excellent lunch
- the Thai word (jae) designating vegetarian restaurants looks like “L7”
- if you want “pho,” you will never find it unless you look for a picture of a bowl of noodles and ask for guay tiew, sen lek
- the cheapest and best way to live in Thailand is renting an apartment; we took over her lease after she moved back to the States, and it was by far our favorite accommodation.
Leave it to a little white girl from New England to teach me basics about Thai lifestyle. Of course, DP and I learned a lot of things ourselves (the hard way) but it was nice to have an English-speaker to bridge the gap during the initial culture shock.
HIV/AIDS in Northern Thailand
The HIV/AIDS situation in Thailand has been steadily improving since the 1980s, in terms of new cases. However, the long-term – indeed, ongoing – impact of the condition is profound. As I try to impart to my students, the driving forces of HIV are complex and interrelated. Like other infectious diseases in any part of the world, it must be studied and understood within the social context, past and present. Paul Farmer puts it much more eloquently – and with much greater authority – in his books: AIDS and Accusations, Pathologies of Power, and Infections and Inequalities. I can only hope to capture a tenth of the situation in northern Thailand with future posts.
Was I just another volunteer tourist?
When I left Chiang Mai, despite three months of work, I felt strangely unsatisfied with my accomplishments. Aside from writing a few reports, what exactly had I done? Some misunderstanding about one of my objectives led to frustration. Most of the time, I actually had no idea what was expected of me. Because of that, I worried (needlessly or not, I’ll never know) that my co-workers found me useless, although they were patient and kind. I only interacted with the children I went there to help on two different occasions. I was often away from DP, who was hoping to do more than work and train while we were in this spectacular city. I felt guilty for some of the sights I saw without him while I was in the field. And then I felt guilty for going back to home base when the TLSDF director offered me a more hands-on position at their office in another province.
Since my time at TLSDF, I have done a dozen other significant things in my life and discovered my passion. Meanwhile, most of the staff at TLSDF are still there, tirelessly working to bring equality to the HIV community. And they will continue doing so long after I have moved on to the next phase in my life.
I can honestly say that I gained much more from that experience than the people with whom I worked. I don’t feel guilty about it anymore, but my perspective has definitely changed. Often we march out into the world, armed with unacknowledged self-importance, determined to make a difference. So help me, I will save the world! But unless we are willing to dedicate our entire lives to a single cause, what have we really done?
Perhaps that’s the wrong way to look at things, but it’s how I feel. I question the good that we do – is it actually for ourselves or for the cause? Does it really matter, as long as we are doing it? I think it does.
My thoughts on volunteering abroad: I would never tell anyone not to volunteer, but really take some time to think about your purpose. Don’t approach it with high expectations or inflated self-importance. Do as much good as you can. Learn a lot. Go home with a greater sense of your position in the Universe.
*After posting this experience, I happened to read a Freshly Pressed post from blogger Pippa Biddle that was all sorts of relevant. I highly recommend it.