Maggie bonding with one of the Lisu children
Led Zeppelin was blasting, a black-hole sun glared through the windows of a stuffy bus, and a group full of new-found friends precariously approached the hilltop tribes of Chiang Rai, Thailand. Eager to learn and explore, I started to collect my thoughts and tried to anticipate what it was we were getting ourselves into. Once introduced to our beautiful host mother and sister, my friend Alondra and I were led to the place we would call home for a meager three days. We indulged in Ramen and eggs for lunch that our mother prepared over her ceramic pot of fire. As our younger sister poked and prodded us throughout the afternoon, we explored the small mountain tribe and interacted with the light-hearted locals. That night we went to sleep as soon as the sun went down and darkness swallowed up all light in the small Lisu hill tribe in Chiang Rai. The next morning we were awoken at 6:00 am by rain, chickens, & howling dogs.
Sitting on the floor in those early hours was a bald eleven-year-old boy dressed in orange robes working on his math homework. Quiet and shy, we politely approached the small monk and asked for his name. We were repaid with a little smirk and laugh, before he continued once again with his homework. Still unaware of his name, we began to refer to our brother as Mr. Monk. Once served breakfast, Mr. Monk headed out to eat alone and pray before his meal. Throughout the duration of the relaxed day, Mr. Monk continued his work, periodically taking breaks to read his Bible with his mother because they were Christian. This confused me due to the initial though that Mr. Monk was a Buddhist. It then donned on us that this child was forced to sacrifice his childhood and religion for the sake of a free education.
Because our host-family was not affluent enough to afford an education, our brother was forced to become a monk in order to obtain a proper education. He had to sacrifice his childhood freedoms, local friends, family relationship and his own religious practices in order to learn and develop as a person. When we returned from our walk our brother once again continued his homework and worked until 9:30 pm. In the early hours of the next day Mr. Monk had disappeared and we did not see him again. Little did he realized the impact he had left on me and how much he taught me about the continuous sacrifice and struggle for a better education truly is. Not only was he sacrificing his freedoms, but my host mother and father continuously worked and hustled in order to help support their children and provide a better life. They could have lived a completely self-sufficient life but rather they kept working in order to ensure their children would get farther in their own lives. The second homestay taught me about raw sacrifice, the importance of education, and why children like Mr. Monk deserve more of a voice in this world.
Experimenters playing frisbee in the Lisu village
I can still distinctly remember the excitement I felt when it was announced that we would be visiting the Baan Chang Elephant Park. We already had great experienced with animals like the water buffaloes at the rice farms and the tigers at the tiger kingdom, but the Elephant Park was an activity I’d been anticipating since we first arrived in Thailand. Even after we reached the park it was still so surreal, and the true weight of the situation hadn’t hit me until I finally spotted the massive Asian Elephants. After getting changed into our uniforms we all made our way to feed the elephants. Coming face to face with them I was astonished at just how big they were as they towered over me. Naturally it would make sense to be fearful of an animal so big, but instead I was in complete awe and had only respect for the amazing creatures.
As I fed them bananas and sugar cane I studied their every move, getting as close as I could get. One of my favorite memories of that day has to be holding up sticks of sugar cane while dozens of trunks were reaching and grabbing. I don’t think there was a single moment I wasn’t hysterically laughing. Then we moved on to learn how to ride the elephants, which was probably the most nerve-wracking part of day. Watching the elephant trainers as they mounted the elephants was completely misleading as I struggled to climb atop the huge elephant. At first I had mixed emotions about riding the elephants, questioning whether it was right to ride them and if it had any impact on them. But I was soon reassured by our guide that the elephants were perfectly safe and comfortable which made the experience of riding them even better.
We then finally moved onto my favorite part of the elephant park, which was bathing the elephants. With a brush in one hand and a bucket in the other I endlessly scrubbed and cleaned me elephant, getting all the spots his trainer said would feel the best. When they were all clean we said our goodbyes as they slowly and gracefully walked away. The Elephant Park was truly an amazing part of the Thailand Experiment and is an experience I will cherish for the rest of my life.
Group leader Jake, and experimenter Sashell conquering fears and enjoying the elephant trek.
In a matter of days, I was able to face my fears- from zip lining to elephant riding. Prior to zip lining, I had a severe fear of heights. I was forced to face those fears head on as my group members shook the bridge and my sanity. I learned to swallow the feelings of regret and continue on the journey. By the end, my body was shivering like a Chihuahua with hypothermia. However, I felt a growing sense of strength inside me as I came to the realization that I had faced my fear and survived stronger than ever. I discovered a newfound confidence from this experience.
This feeling quickly crumbled as I approached the mountainous monster of an elephant. I forced myself forward, grabbing onto its leathery hide and swinging a leg over. As I felt its massive muscles begin to move, I felt the fear course through my veins. As it stood up the elephant launched me into the sky as I let out a blood curdling scream. My peers assured me I was safe, but I felt the tears forming. The instructor shimmied up the elephants trunk to join me, encouraging me to face the elephantine obstacle. Within a few minutes, I was able to exit the roller coaster of fear. I was under the impression that I had finished the ordeal, however, I soon learned that we were going on a trek through the mountains. I realized that I had to embrace the fear consuming me. When the elephant approached, I set my jaw and stepped up to the plate. With the reassuring presence of my group leader, Jake, I was able to survive the hour long ride in the mountains. These experiences have molded how I view fear and have shown me how to conquer it. I am eternally grateful for the new perspective I have gained through these experiences
Experimenters washing the elephants after their elephant trek.