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Community Development Volunteer Projects in Thailand!

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Walking in the Stars

Just the other day, I stepped out of my little hut, walked through the recently drenched rice patties, and found myself falling through space. The sky above was immensely dark and thick with stars, denser in some regions, almost making parts seem wholly lit, while others seemed more scattered. Behind them all was the great river of light we find our home in—the Milky Way. Yet, all of this, Milky Way included, was beneath me as well. The rice patties around me, in their 10’ by 10’ squares, acted as a seamless mirror when crouched down just so, letting the horizon disappear. The surface of the pools, in the day, reflected the blue sky, a reflection quilted by thin, bright green tips of newly budding rice. But by night stars filled the patties’ surface, allowing that river of light to flow underfoot as well as above; ground ceased to exist, only the star-strewn space stretched onto forever.
I was no longer just beneath this night sky, but also above it—there was a sensation of floating. There could have been potential for reorientation, to regain gravity and stability, were it not for that something which totally confounded my senses: between the constellations above and below floated countless paper lanterns, their lights pulsing just like the stars’. Some moved up to join clusters above, others seemingly moving down when seen through the patties’ reflection. At times I found myself thinking if this is what vertigo feels like, and others I thought I’d found some magical realm—both held me in a trance. Even an hour after I’d found my way back to the hut, I couldn’t entirely convince myself this room wasn’t floating detached from earth…ah, Thailand.

I’ve traveled to Thailand on a VFP Scholarship to teach—more precisely, to hone my teaching ability and instill the love of English into my students, a love which brought me, almost literally, halfway around the world from Ann arbor to Thailand. One aspect of the scholarship is reasonably unique: I’m to travel throughout the country teaching English camps every one to two weeks, instead of staying at one school for the trip’s duration. I’ve been a teacher part-time for the past two years while studying at the University of Michigan. One year teaching five- and six-year-olds with America Reads, and another running four to five workshops a week at the wonderfully fun 826Michigan tutoring center. The success I had hinted I might be able to continue it elsewhere, allowing me to explore the relation between a Westernized teaching style when it’s implemented in a non-Westernized classroom.

It was this interest that led to the aforementioned scholarship and to my sojourn in southern Thailand. Here, my enthusiasm and comfort with students proved invaluable as a means of stirring curiosity within local youth (my blond hair and green eyes and light skin helped, too!). For all teachers—whether they teach non-linear algebra, deep ecology, or the ABCs—have in common that they work with the malleable minds of students, able to garner and crystallize a love of learning much more indurate than the time spent within classrooms. It’s a heavy burden if one chooses to shoulder it (all teachers have observed this), but they also know its payoff: the joy in seeing a child’s improvement; their fired eyes when they shout, “I finally understand!”; seeing their continued success after they’ve left you, hungry for a better life.

And all of this I observed, almost making me feel like I, at times, learned more than those I thought. But the one thing I tell friends and family at home when they ask how I’m doing or ask for an interesting story about what’s happened to me here, I find myself talking, of all things, about small, black ants. It’s a story that seems to express this scholarship’s goal of intercultural enrichment with volunteers, but the only difference here is that insects brought forth the experience usually conveyed by humans.

Early one morning I brought a small, delicious bowl of fruit back to my hut, which I ate by myself, sitting on the ground, leaning against my hut and watching the sun start its planned journey, shining through palm’s fronds. I noticed a friend walk by carrying little boat-shaped trays woven simply and neatly from sections of 3-inch blades of thick grass. They were maybe six inches long, each containing a small lump of freshly cooked rice. He continued walking by, eventually going around a bend and passing out of sight. When he returned from that spot two hours later, the bowls he had were completely empty.

The second time I saw the tiny boats, I asked my friend what they were for. He patiently explained that they were offerings to the spirits that protected this land. When I inquired about the Thai word he used for “spirit,” he repeated, in simple Thai, that they were gifts for the spirits of the compound, and I understood that I’d correctly heard him. He then disappeared down the same trail. I sat and mused for a bit, put down my bowl and peered through the trees. At first there was nothing to see, but then he appeared crouched down, delicately placing an offering at the foot of the shrine—a small bird-house sized oriental hut sitting atop a six-foot pole. Then he stood up with the other bowls, turned to his right, walked ten feet, and sat down another bowl on the ground. He did the same ten feet to the left. Later on, when my friend was napping, I walked back to see the offerings. There were the little grass boats, all three perfectly equidistant. But the mounds of rice they held were gone.

The next week, I finished my bowl of fruit, waited for my friend to pass by on the trail, then lithely headed to a spot where I could watch. The three trays were placed as precisely as before, filled with their rice. But as I gazed at the center bowl, I was puzzled to see one of the white kernels actually inching away from the bowl.

It was only when I knelt down that I realized a small, steady stream of ants winding through the grass to the offering. The line appeared to stem from a thick tuft of grass near a palm tree behind the shrine. The other bowls had their own stream of ants, all three coming from this patch of grass surrounding the palm. I walked back to my hut smiling to myself, not so much at thinking that my friend actually believed spirits took the offerings, just amused at what he’d say if he saw ants take them away, one piece at a time. But then I wondered a strange thing: what if the ants were the very “spirits” the offerings were for?

This thought kept me up for nights, and probably had something to do with my inability to escape this westernized notion of “spirits” (which is almost always defined in contrast to physical presence or “flesh”), and the orphic presences to which the Thai culture, along with many others, pay so much respect. We in Ann Arbor give worship to (depending on the time of year) football, weather, and academic deities. Sometimes they listen, at times we feel wronged. But it’s always convenience worshipping, nothing as dedicated as what I witnessed with the ants and those who fed them.

It only takes a Google search to read about how the earliest Western students of these phenomena were primed to wrongly see occult ghosts and ghouls in place of simple tribal displays of respect to local winds and the functions they serve. This original misconception has made its way into our Western idea of “spirit,” which has to do with human association (human-shaped ghosts, for example). But this was my first encounter or suggestion suggesting “spirits” of indigenous cultures are primarily not in human form, while still retaining an intelligence and awareness.

We humans have a pretty good rapport with our bodies and know its needs and limits, but things get murky with knowing the first-hand experience of a hummingbird or komodo dragon, the portly squirrels of Ann Arbor; their precise sensation aren’t available even if we perform the same actions: drinking water; eating food; knowing on acorns. For all the effort Michigan students put in their Squirrel Club, I’m wondering if they’ve ever tried to feel “one with the squirrel.”

Moreover, it’s not just the entities acknowledged by Western civilization as “alive” that help define this oral Thai culture’s sense of self, not only the animals and plants, but also the weaving river up the road, the rain-season that’s now in full swing, the stones I can pick up and fit neatly into my hand. The mountains to the north also seem to have their thoughts. The forest birds’ chirring drone is the vocal embodiment of the life around me.

It’s possible to feel hints of this in Ann Arbor. The Nichols Arboretum seems to have its own personality and deep secrets, perhaps even fairies. Front and center at North Campus’s Nature Preserve is the sheer multitude of flora and fauna that our region offers. More examples are available in the city, but I feel none give the sense of seamless connectivity to the environment surrounding it that this Thai landscape offers. In the Arb you see the University Hospital at a distance; the city’s sounds encroach on the Huron’s gurgles—there’s always a human presence where one goes. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. Ann Arbor will always feel like home. But the ability to have this ontological shift to become attuned to the nun-human side of things is a whole not easier when it’s readily available.

So I finally settled that the offerings were ways to be attentive to nonhuman nature; it signified not so much an awe or poignant reverence for human powers, but a deeply-rooted appreciation and celebratory act for these forms of awareness not in human form, which is when our direct experiential connection severs and atomizes into the surrounding cosmos. The exact one that so profoundly disoriented me a few days back.

This branching of the human back into the larger world we inhabit might allow us to never feel entirely alien to those other forms that experiences life a little (or a lot) differently we do. If we’re able to look past the obvious differences in shape, ability, or style of being, they remain permanently attached to us, even though the thread may be thin. So while VFP makes room for the most intimate and transformative bonds to occur between humans, if you follow your curiosity, their trips can also offer up everything and more.