It was time to return. I packed my bags with only the essentials: clothes, a minimalist assortment of toiletries, cameras, an array of iDevices for the 21st century traveler, and of course, stickers. Lots of them. After bouncing around East Asia on a few dreadful layovers, thanks to my stubbornness to book the cheapest flight available, I landed in Bangkok around 11:00pm last Thursday. The next day I caught a flight up to Nakhon Phanom. That was one leg of the journey I was okay throwing out any preoccupation with cost. I was ready to leave behind the ultra-tourism of Central Thailand for the laid-back Northwest as fast as I could. The pull I felt to return to the place I called home for a year was indescribable. At 8:00pm on Friday I landed in NKP and was received by Pi Med and Pi Ponchai, two of my closest contacts in Thailand, who brought me back to Pla Pak as their house guest.
The next five days that followed have been a whirlwind of joyful reunions, delicious food and valiant attempts at conversation. I plunged head-first, as I did three years ago, into this beautiful, hospitable, mesmerizing place I’ve held so close ever since leaving. I’ve surfaced, with a few mosquito bites, a renewed appreciation for shower heads and enough happiness to last another year or two until my next visit. There are no words to explain the emotions I felt seeing my students again and greeting the teachers with whom I grew closest.
The familiarity of this place is overwhelming, though much has changed: new schools have been built, roads paved and shops opened. There is no longer aerobic [read “Arabic”] dance in the village center and I do not recognize the students in the three youngest grades at Pla Pak Noi and Wang Yang schools. The main road through town seems busier than I remembered and Wi-Fi is now abundant. Perhaps the greatest change, however is the bathroom makeover in my old teacher housing. This year’s WorldTeach volunteers have the luxury of a Western toilet and a hot water heater for the shower! I’m not jealous, really. I think bucket showers and that squat toilet made me a better person. That’s what I’m telling myself.
I met the new WorldTeach volunteer who is now at Pla Pak Noi and it is reassuring to know that the students I once taught are in exceptional hands. I found remnants of some of my old teaching tools in her classroom, which made me smile. One of the most intriguing and rewarding parts of my trip thus far has been the reclamation of the Thai language (as I understood it). I would say I retained about 20% of my vocabulary, and after five days of submersion, I’ve landed myself back at month seven in my language development. The most amusing parts of this linguistic journey have been the moments when, in Thai conversation, I understand that I’m about to do something (eat dinner) with someone (teachers), though I inconveniently miss important words that tell me the when, where and how. In moments like these, out of sheer habit after playing this game for a year, I of course say yes to it all and just wait for life to take hold. Eventually I am sitting down to a delicious Korean barbecue with people I’ve come to love, laughing at bad jokes over beer with ice. During these moments, two polar opposite thoughts dance across my mind: How did I do this for an entire year? and Why did I ever leave?
My time in Pla Pak has come to an end. Tomorrow I leave for Mukdahan, where I will rendezvous with a good friend and travel to one of the last corners of Isaan we have yet to see, Ubon Ratchathani. I’ve fallen in love all over again with the Isaan region of Thailand. After seeing the slow but gratifying work of building community in Detroit through growing food, I am more deeply moved by this agrarian society than ever before. Life revolves around what can be grown at any time of the year and routine is married to the sun and season. It’s a wonderful reminder for what life could (should?) look like back home.