Service trip to Thailand opens native's eyes

By Candace Begody
Navajo Times
WINDOW ROCK, June 28, 2012

Text size: A A A


efore leaving home, many asked why I was leaving everything and everyone I knew to travel around the world to Thailand. Without much detail, I would respond, "I am volunteering."

Some followed my answer either visibly puzzled or with a second question, "But why?"

That's when I realized what they were really asking.

They were asking why I was going to another country to offer my services for free when so many people struggle on the Navajo Reservation.

They were also asking why I would even think about leaving my 9-month-old son to travel the world or why I was leaving to teach another person's child when I have one of my own.

When my decision to travel aboard was being challenged, I began to ask myself those same questions and reevaluated my reasons for going. What concerned me most was that every answer I had did not seem good enough.

But having been there and back, I can answer with confidence because in so many ways, my life is changed.

The other volunteers and I left Bangkok on a 12-hour train ride to the city of Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand. From there, we drove another two hours to Chiangdao, a small town much like the capital of the Navajo Nation.

Then, we drove another 30 minutes up a single-lane bumpy road in the back of a small truck to the tree house we would be living for the next two weeks.

On the morning of June 11, we arrived at our project site - the Princess Ubolratana School, which was founded by a princess of Thailand.

We spent time with the kindergarten students and were given the backgrounds of some of the students. Some have HIV, many were abandoned, some would have died had the school not taken them in, we were told.

Some were orphans, many were on a fast track to becoming victims of human trafficking, many were poor and could not afford medications needed to stay alive, and many were abused or abandoned.

I entered the classroom and immediately found my purpose for being there. Many of the children just wanted to be held and to hold someone's hand.

Aside from the other teachers and nuns at the school, I was the closest they would ever get to having a real mother.

They didn't know I was Navajo and we never had a conversation as they only speak Thai. But to them, my dark skin and black hair suggested I was Thai. They accepted that and became comfortable being around me.

We shared a connection that the Anglo volunteers did not for the simple reason that I looked like them.

At a very young age, they were being taught how to be respectful and independent. At the school, students were on a strict schedule. Every morning and evening, the students gather for prayer before breakfast and after dinner.

They learn more about the god they believe in, as many are Buddhist, Christian, and Catholic, among others.

During prayer, they learn about being thankful, having a kind heart, and about the importance of helping and serving. They also are taught about being open minded and open hearted as they learned about other religions in addition to their own.

After each meal, students are required to wash their own dishes and dry them - just one way they are taught responsibility.

On weekends, the students clean around the school, do homework, get tutoring, and work in the school garden. The school relies heavily on government funding and by planting their own vegetables, it saves money, we were told. It also allows students to learn how to grow their own crops.

After leaving the school at age 18, many resort to growing and selling their own crops for income.

Many girls, however, still turn to prostitution since college is rarely an option and they can earn more money in a shorter amount of time.

When we weren't at the school, we were taking food to some of the poorest people in the community. Many lived in shacks made of metal sheets and wood.

One family of five, we were told, lost their father, who was the breadwinner. His family now survives on 1,500 baht a month from the government, the equivalent to about $40.

Though many have disagreed with where I went to volunteer, I believe I have given back to my Navajo people in a way that many do not - by seeing another part of the world.

I learned about what service is really about. It is about sacrifice, it is about having a warm and caring heart, it is about having compassion for human beings, and it can sometimes be lonely.

Growing up my parents and grandparents always emphasized the importance of giving back and serving. I did not know of a better way to pass that teaching onto my son than to go out and do it myself.

I asked myself, "How can I teach my son about the world not many people see and about the importance of giving back if I don't do it myself? I needed to be a walking, talking example of the kind of person the world needs."

I lost time away from my son that I will never get back but I am able to tell him and the Navajo Nation that despite how we grow up on the Navajo Reservation - with inadequate health care, poor school systems, and anything else that we complain about - we still live a privileged life.

There are people around the world that are worse off than we are.

Many do not have the option of going to college and improving their quality of life, but we do. No matter what one's socioeconomic status is in America, one can attain the American Dream and become an astronaut, lawyer or entrepreneur simply because we live in one of the greatest countries in the world.

We easily spend $40 every day to get a manicure, watch a movie, have a nice dinner, or send our children off to school with that kind of change.

Yet in Thailand - and I have no doubt there are other such places in the world - families are living off three cups of rice a month and filthy water, water that I was afraid to drink.

I took many things for granted - clean water, air conditioning, free health care and more. This was something I would not have known had I not grasped the opportunity to live the life of a poor Thai person.