Traveling with my niece last year through Southeast Asia has taken on a surreal quality over the past several months since we returned home. Intellectually I know that it was not so long ago that she and I were side-by-side on an airplane, a grin on her face mixed with equal slices of fear and enthusiasm for her first plane ride…and a doozy it was. It took us nearly two days to get to Chiang Mai, Thailand, but once there, it felt like a return to home for me – it is a city I know quite well – and for my niece Ana, it was a safe spot for a new adventure.
The adventure turned out so much better than I could have hoped for when we decided homeschool and travel. That’s not to say that there weren’t challenges – we had no idea the adjustments that were in store for both of us – but over the course of the months we grew closer as we found activities and interests that coincided and helped us explore together. And we met new friends. Many, many new friends from all walks of life and each one with a lesson to share that went far beyond what I alone could ever teach her.
And for each of those people who came into our lives in Southeast Asia with a lesson, a friendship, and a shared idea – well, to each of them I owe a sincere thank you. It is with the influence of the community of people we met along the way that our more than six months abroad were so successful. Though this list is not exhaustive of the lessons learned and friends met, it is more a sample of the nature of friends on the road the value I found in exposing my niece to people from all walks of life. It’s a thank you through the lessons and ideas each person has inspired in Ana and me:
Ambition and Action Cause Real Change
The friends at the Akha Ama coffee shop in Chiang Mai were the very first faces we saw when arrived in town and they set the tone for the many new types of people we would meet over our six and a half months on the road. Lee, your inspiring story of how you worked to bring a better income and future to your community of Akha villages is a clear example of how much a single person can accomplish. After visiting your rural village, it struck Ana as remarkable that you purposefully and passionately pursued your education, and then took that education and built a business that catalyzed lasting change for your community. Whenever we visited the Akha Ama coffee shop in town, I knew you and Jenny, your assistant, would have a quick smile and friendly humor to greet us.
Embrace Joy and Lifelong Learning
With the responsibility for my niece’s welfare, I sometimes forgot to enjoy the simplicity of pausing for the moments of joy in our days. Jodi, thank you for bringing the silly, the fun, and the occasionally absurd into our lives. We laughed. A lot. And you made us both think. Thank you for always asking Ana thoughtful questions about each new experience. Education is a life-long journey to be lived outside of the classroom and you are a living example of the curiosity I hope Ana shows for learning throughout her life.
Generosity Comes in All Sizes
Having friends was a major concern for my niece before we left, and I had hopes that Ana and M, the nine year-old from the GotPassport family, would hit it off. And they did. M, your vibrancy and imagination made every day trip and outing an adventure for us – I love looking back at the many imaginative ways you two found to interact with the world we explored together (jumping, sliding, digging, coloring, tasting…you name and you two found a way to do it somewhere along the lines). Thank you to A and J, both of you take a very hands-on role in educating your daughter, and I was so grateful to spend time with you on the road in both Thailand and Burma and for your generosity every moment of our time together.
New Friends Inspire New Goals
When we left the United States, Ana had a very specific framework for her dreams – her life experiences up until that point influenced who she thought she could become. So to Dani and Jess, I say thank you. You both were such a positive influence on Ana, and she looked forward to each time our paths crossed throughout Southeast Asia (first in Chiang Mai, then Laos, then Chiang Mai again, and we capped it off with a week in Cambodia). Dani, you have truly inspired Ana to learn your native language, German. And then French, Spanish, Mandarin…well, once she discovered how great you were, she realized that learning other languages opens up the world to so many new possible friends, ideas, and opportunities. Jess, you are so much “cooler” than me in teen terms…which made you an idol of sorts and a confidante when life on the road became overwhelming for Ana. You both have opened her mind to friendships and opportunities that span cultures, languages, ages, and lifestyles.
Children Learn Through Doing
Naomi, thank you for your unique understanding of how children work, and for your guidance in those first few weeks of our trip. The ideas and projects you suggested on ways to engage my niece with the world were spot on. We hunted down beads for bracelet-making projects, and took in artists and workshops throughout our trip to keep Ana’s hands actively doing, which in turn engaged her mind every day. Ana made traditional stencils in Laos and learned first hand how the monks paint the intricate designs on the Buddhist temples. We learned how to dye and weave silk, we made traditional crafts to match the local holidays, we hiked, we rode bikes down bumpy roads. Each activity was an adventure in its own right and we both thank you for your many kindnesses and your friendship.
Kids Can Impact the World Too
The time we spent regularly volunteering with the We Women Foundation in Chiang Mai impacted Ana in ways I am still witnessing months later. Twice a week for several months Ana and I taught a Burmese refugee how to speak English. Ana and I planned our lessons together, came up with games and activities and spent five hours a week teaching English to a twenty-something Shan refugee. We didn’t change the world, I was honest with Ana and upfront about how each person can only take tiny steps to cause positive change. What Ana left with though, was the knowledge that one person in this world now has more job opportunities and the ability to perhaps earn money for her family because we started her down the road of learning the English language. It was a small act, but tangible. So to We Women, and to our motivated and eager student, thank you.
People are Inherently Kind
Our media in the United States is quick to paint the rest of the world with twin brush strokes labeled: dangerous and strange. Thailand is a wonderful country for a first-time adventure, I chose Thailand specifically because I wanted my niece to see that warmth and kindness are traits offered freely by people all over the world. Ana laughed daily with the street vendors who patiently corrected her beginner Thai and delighted they delighted in the fact that she was learning their language. And in Burma we found a sweetness of nature and hospitality that belied the only stories that seem to make international headlines. Ana played games of kick the ball with children all over Southeast Asia who shared a common love for play; a language far more important than spoken language.
There is Always Time for Gratitude
My life got busy this summer, and though I wrote pieces of this story months ago I somehow never quite finished it. But gratitude is important. And so, thanks goes to the many other people in our lives over the past year.
Sean and Eva, thank you for the conversations and friendships. And doubly thank you for taking Ana to the movies and bringing me young coconuts for re-hydration when I was sick. Paddy, thank you for running the Christmas 10K with us; being accountable to you helped us stay motivated to train for the run and wake up at the ungodly hour of 4 am. Monique and Steve, your joy was infectious and we loved having friends with whom we could wander and explore the busy streets of Bangkok. Dustin from Skinny Backpacker, thank you for always asking about Ana’s school classes each time we met up, it drew her into even the most adult-centric of our gatherings and made her feel welcomed. And thanks to Catherine Bodry, Dan and Lindsay, Christine and Drew, Chais and Shawna, James, and Anna in Phnom Penh.
Impermanence and Change are a Part of Life
Life on the road is a series of ever-changing circumstances, and I’d go so far as to say that’s a quality of life as well. I know I am not alone in a desire to cling to structure and fear change. But change is natural and many experiences in Ana’s life will be impermanent. Although children thrive on structure and routine, there is a time and place for every thing. We had our routines in place while we traveled, our patterns for eating, school-work, and exploring. But beyond those guidelines, life is messy. We had to say goodbye to good friends and people Ana may never meet again. We found tiny towns we loved deeply, and left knowing even if we returned, we would never fully return to this moment in time. This is far more philosophical than the rest of the lessons, but I value adaptability and I think life on the road has given Ana resilience, adaptability, and an acceptance of change that we learned through each person we met and each lesson they taught us.