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Volunteer StrangeTravel, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Thailand’s Many Wonders

By Andrew Overbye 3 years ago
Categories Phang Nga

Who knew living in Thailand didn’t have to be a choice between sacrificing the beautiful sight seeing or sacrificing the sense of cultural immersion?

I’ve been at GVI’s Phang Nga base in Baan Nam Khem for two weeks now. Unlike so many of my fellow volunteers, who are just embarking on their Thailand adventure, GVI is more of a change of pace at the tail end of my sojourn in the country than a beginning.

Since Cinco de Mayo until the end of August 2015, I taught Kindergarten and Prathom 1 at a private school in Muang Kalasin, Kalasin, Thailand. As an alumnus of GVI’s Marine Conservation program in the Seychelles in early 2011, I’d love to say that my desire to teach was born of a sense of community and a sense of giving back.

While I am not without beneficence, I had zero prior teaching experience and saw teaching in Thailand as an excuse to, well, see the wonders of Thailand, geographical and cultural alike.

Thrown into the world of teaching with no prior experience, I was truly forced to grow personally and professionally. For that I am grateful and proud, but this lifestyle was a give and take.

Put simply, I had invested all of myself in the cultural immersion aspect of my Thai experience at the expense of seeing the country and diversifying my activities beyond teaching. Kalasin is isolated enough that the three hours of teaching I was doing became the meat, potatoes, and side dishes (and that bizarre orange Thai milk schoolchildren drink) of my every day.

Luckily, thanks to GVI, I’ve been able to have my cake and eat it, too.

With the conclusion of my teaching semester looming, I was reminded of my terrific experience at the GVI Seychelles base, and how the staff there spoke glowingly of the volunteer opportunities in Thailand. Having participated in the scuba diving program, I had always been slightly jealous of my sea turtle-wrangling comrades on the beaches, who seemed to get so much satisfaction out of trying to help their majestic, shelled compatriots.

Now, here at the GVI base in Phang Nga, we in the Conservation program are all enjoying a blend of cultural immersion and outdoor conservation work. The sessions we have had scrubbing the baby turtles at the Navy Base and the Thai Maung Department of Fisheries, for example, have been adorable and rewarding.

That said, how the heck do these turtles get so dirty so quickly? I’m not a small person (My Thai bed frame recently buckled as I dismounted the top bunk), and on my worst days working as a farm hand, there would be a ring of filth at the high water mark of my evening bath. I estimate that these baby turtles are about 1/900th of my size, and three days after we clean the tanks there is filth caked on the bottom again. I love scrubbing tanks, but somebody needs to tell these pipsqueaks that cleanliness is next to godliness.

Anyway, between the moments when the teenaged sea turtles are slapping the everliving bejesus out of you while you try to lovingly clean them, it is wonderful to be able to interact so directly with and help such adorable creatures in need.

While GVI has allowed me to interact with the nature that I so sorely missed in Kalasin via turtle cleaning and hikes geared around species identification, the sense of cultural immersion in Phang Nga is also strong and rewarding.

In my second week here, volunteers and staff alike spent the afternoon at a local school for Sports Day, which is more or less what it sounds like. A fellow volunteer and I had the pleasure of running the bean bag toss, which became the ping pong ball toss, presumably because of some budget snafoo in a world where the rarity of fine, spongey beans are being hoarded by the posh barbecues of planet Earth’s affluent grilling fanatics.

Don’t get me wrong (In fact, please get me right. That would make this all go much smoother), ping pong balls make this game more athletic and challenging for both the students and the GVI volunteers. It was heartbreaking to see the school children hit the target with their ping pong ball only to see it bounce out and away. The children were so invested in these games, with such zeal and general positivity, that I wanted to see them succeed.

However, many students did discover how to properly put the spin on their ball such that it stayed in the target cup. The manner in which the ping pong balls’ elasticity increased the challenge of the game made these victories all the sweeter.

Can I pull a metaphor out of this? The ping pong ball is…your Thailand experience? And the target cups are…getting what you want out of it? And the ping pong balls represent…the unexpected complications that travel poses to you? So, then…GVI…really helped me sink my ping pong ball…into that cup.

Yeah, that was masterful.