Letter Three from Thailand

Sawadee ka! And Happy Holidays!

The trip is over. I’m finishing this letter from a cozy chair by the fire at my Aunt Donna and Uncle Jim’s house in Minneapolis. I went from 91 degrees in Chiang Mai through 20-plus hours of airports and airplanes to Minnesota, where the snow is falling, and Aunt Donna has just fed me brownies. Couldn’t be more home-sweet-home than this.

When I left you last, we were headed for Den’s place. Den is an interesting character. A Thai renaissance man – someone who does a little of everything. Den studied design for four years in Belgium before moving back to Thailand. For many years, he designed jewelry and had a successful silver shop in an island community off the coast of Thailand. Then the tsunami of 2004 happened. Fortunately for Den, his third child was being born, so he had left the island to be with his wife and children at the hospital on the mainland. Everything he owned on the island was washed away. But Den and his family survived.

Rather than rebuild from scratch on the coast, Den decided to rebuild in the mountains of Thailand, where there was little risk of tsunamis. He bought some land, and has been building a little resort by hand – his own hands – for the past 10 years. It isn’t done yet, Den’s one-man resort. However, the parts that are complete are nothing short of beautiful, and have clearly been carefully designed. There are little bungalows surrounded by towering bamboo, and a variety of organic herbs. The bungalows all have windows, but the bamboo forest and jungle provides privacy, and makes each one feel protected. A little stream runs through the property, and there’s a formal pool for the tourists, although it looks like it’s never been used. There’s a fire pit for evenings, not too far from the center of the resort. And in the center, there’s a central gazebo where people gather to chat. One of the best features is the path through the resort. Den has laid broad cement blocks, alternating between round and rectangular, through the vegetation to make a walking path. It meanders over the stream, curves past bungalows, and flows almost like a natural force past plants and trees. The place is magical, and it feels like elves could be hiding in the jungle.

Den has built a contraption in the central gazebo to help him weave hammocks. So in a single day, Den completes some combination of chores, weaving hammocks in between. He might thatch a roof on a bungalow with dried leaves, plant lemongrass, clear some jungle, construct a bedframe from bamboo, and weave part of a hammock (it takes a month to complete one). Den is attached to the rhythms of life, rather than those of modern life. While he has a cell phone, he rarely uses it. Thus, asking him to work with the students required us to go to Pai before the students arrived, locate him, and meet with him. Sometimes he’s easy to find, and sometimes not so much. This is a relationship that Maria and Adam, our other faculty, have been nurturing. And I’m glad they have.

Although he doesn’t have a degree in horticulture or botany, Den is an ethnobotanist. His eyes sparkled as he spent the morning feeding the students herbs from all over his property and explaining the medicinal properties. Some of the leaves were harvested from big trees, others from bushy plants growing in Den’s jungle, and others from plants growing synergistically on trees. They chewed, made faces, and spit out many herbs. Only with the various species of Thai basil did they go back for more. Later in the evening, Den led the students to a natural hot springs in a river. Den provided commentary on everything from the dangers of motor scooters to global warming. He has lots of opinions, and he isn’t afraid to share them. He has plenty of time to think and meditate as he constructs his resort, which he hopes to sell someday. The students learned a lot from their day with Den. Some listed it as their favorite day of the trip.

I wasn’t able to go to the hot springs with the students. Two of the students got sick and I stayed behind with them. Our drivers, Chade and Ning, had plenty of advice for our students (who were vomiting and had diarrhea). They pulled packets of activated charcoal out of their pockets for the diarrhea, and took us to the pharmacy for herbs or drugs for the nausea. They came to the bungalows to check on the students often, worrying in a nurturing way. It’s difficult to be sick when you’re in the mountains of Thailand without the modern conveniences of home. However, the drivers made it their mission to help make everything ok.

On the way back to Chiang Mai the next day, we stopped for fuel. In typical NUNM student style, one of the students decided she needed to stretch and get a little exercise while she waited for the others to snack shop at 7-11. She stretched her arms above her head and started doing squats. Chade, who is usually quite calm and introspective, panicked. He knocked on my car window, “Captain Heather, Captain Heather! There’s something wrong with one of your students!!!” I looked outside. Yes, she looked strange – made more bizarre by the fact that most Thai people get their exercise from physical labor. So doing squats in a parking lot is nothing short of outlandish. I asked the student to get in the car and calmed Chade. “No, there’s nothing wrong with her. She’s just odd.” His eyebrows raised, skeptically. Clearly there must be something wrong. (And, where did Chade come up with Captain Heather? That we may never know.)

I was reflecting on whether this was a successful trip. Sure, we saw amazing places, ate delicious food, received lots of massage, and managed to navigate 12 days with 13 people without any major disagreements. That’s one level of success. And frankly, for tourist trips, that is probably enough. But for a class like this one, a cultural immersion class, I want the students to take away more. We had facilitated several discussions about personal growth, knowing yourself better, figuring out your needs, and providing self-care. We also talked about active listening, the skill of not composing your answer while someone else is still speaking, but stopping to truly listen. In other cultures where people are dealing with English as a second language, you can’t interrupt or you will never hear what they have to share. I wanted to know if the students had picked up any of these softer skills.

The best way to find that out is ask them. So I asked the students to come up with three things that they took away from the trip. And the results were really promising. Yes, they wanted to learn how to cook Thai food, and get more massages – who doesn’t? (I got nine on this trip!) But some of the other pieces that came out were really touching.

  • Several students felt they had gotten to understand themselves much better through Element theory. And that in that understanding, they were able to honor the special things that each of them brought to the group and forgive themselves for some of their idiosyncrasies.  Self-forgiveness? Sounds like a great trip outcome.
  • Another student had been struggling with severe anxiety. On the trip, she was able to discover that her anxiety was environment dependent and not permanent. She was relieved. Liberation? Another outcome that is difficult to achieve in a classroom.
  • One student has a physical disability that is threatening to strip her of her autonomy. She was able to break off from the group and do things on her own on this trip. She got her self-confidence back. She truly transformed on this trip. I’ve never seen this student laugh and build friendships the way she did in Thailand. Self-confidence is an amazing thing.
  • Other students discussed patience and mindfulness. They discussed that they realized that Thai people, who are happy and kind, didn’t smile at them unless the students smiled first – and they vowed to smile more in the future. They also found that they didn’t actively listen to people, and made it a priority for their future. And they took self-responsibility.

So, was it a successful trip? Absolutely. I’m so proud of these students. They were a great group to travel with, and I can’t imagine better outcomes. And I’m reminded why it’s so gratifying to share these trips with our students. We have amazing people all around us – we only need to discover them.

I’m off to Minnesota to celebrate mom’s 75th birthday. It may be sad to not have to chase a gecko out of my toiletry bag in the morning, but it will be wonderful to not be coated with mosquito repellant for a few months. Until the next trip…

Sending love and holiday wishes to all!