So I just finish two amazing final projects, have said good-bye to my Rasi Salai friends and family (at which point I practically lost it during our final meeting), and have pretty much finalized plans to head to Khao Yai National Park for the retreat time, since for me, ending my semester hiking in the jungle of Thailand would be much more productive than talking about how much more time I would have rather spent outside doing as opposed to inside talking. (The retreat was amazing I heard, and provided great closure for the students who went, but I was in my own little paradise, and my reflection there was perfect.)
And then a red shirt general gets shot in the head. And then a lot more people are killed and injured, including foreigners and innocent civilians. Trigger reads "indiscriminate bombing" and CIEE Thailand goes into red alert.
The program calls mandatory meetings in order to finalize everyone's plans and requires all of us to evacuate the country as soon as possible. Neither the retreat nor the Khao Yai trip are canceled but program arrangements are made so that we could be evacuated quickly and safely, if necessary.
It became necessary.
I was just thinking that my favorite thing about nature is that it doesn't matter where you are. The jungle has no political boundaries or national agendas. The rainforest was an amazing safe haven from any turmoil we may have left in Khon Kaen or the rest of Thailand. We could hike and camp and not worry that we were in a country whose capital was being called a warzone. Then we got the phone call. Not exactly from the source we expected it to come from (a little irrational decision making there, but it's all good), but eventually we got news that we would be evacuated from the park a day early and brought to the Great Residence Hotel near the airport where our friends would already be waiting after being flown out earlier that morning. No one would be allowed to stay in the country past May 20, and CIEE would reimburse you for any money lost or additional costs due to your changed plans. CIEE staff members would be staying in the hotel with us until every group member was safely on a plane to a different country.
By some miracle, I was one of three (out of 31) students who didn't change any of their flights once this semester. I was lucky that in March and April all flights were booked from BKK to JFK until June 15, so I couldn't change my plans to travel around Thailand after the program. So anyway, with my flight remaining at 11:35 am on May 19 (I am currently sitting on the airplane), I checked into a hotel room with April and Charlotte, and stayed put for two nights.
One by one my classmates left, only a handful staying in Southeast Asia to travel outside of Thailand. It was painful to say goodbye; every time someone left, it felt like I was losing an appendage. But it was also hard to comprehend, since we had thought we were saying good-bye for the last time so many times before. Having lived out of a suitcase for the past three weeks, in case of immediate evacuation, it was hard to believe that I was actually packing for real this time.
Never mind that a whole new dimension had just recently been added to the weight of this program. The country that we had grown to love, where we could speak the language, and share stories with people whose provinces we had been to, was now in political turmoil, a crisis that directly affected many of our host families and friends. We had completely taken over the hotel restaurant, camping out with our computers in order to read the news together and figure out what was going on. It was really strange to be around other foreigners, who had no personal investment in Thailand, and showed no interest in the turmoil surrounding them.
I was seriously upset and pained after every conversation. My heart hurt and I had to leave because I couldn't hear anymore traumatic stories or accounts of smoke, fire, death, and hatred. All I wanted to do was talk to people who had no idea what was going on, people back in the states, but everyone was so concerned for my safety, it was hard to convey deeper emotions. The director of my program is heavily invested in Thai politics, both in a personal and academic sense, and hearing him so upset and talking in such distress, made me feel so much for my new home, Thailand.
Never once was I scared for myself- CIEE took such great care of us, Ajaan Jeab and Ajaan John especially, coordinating flights, rides, rooms, meals, and relieving stress by remaining upbeat. The program was not only concerned for our safety, but our emotional well-being and making sure we would leave the country with closure and reflection from the entire semester. I was never in danger, but my heart was seriously about to break. Not only was I saying goodbye to my newest friends who I have spent every minute of every day for the past 4 months with, from whom I have learned so much, and I've grown to love almost unconditionally, but I had to say goodbye to my new country in a completely new light. The country I arrived in is not the same country I am leaving.
Less than two months ago, I spent a weekend in the middle of the red shirt rally, where signs reading "Non- violence" and "Peace" were posted everywhere. The majority of the protesters thought they were returning the next day, because their leader was currently in negotiations with parliament. I thought it was so cool to be experiencing such a cultural, political event, talking to everyone I saw. Just look back to my previous blog about the rally, and compare the tones. I can't believe where those feelings have come. Negotiations haven't been made since March 30, and non- violence is no longer the mantra. What I thought was such an interesting commentary on Thai politics has become a huge tragedy, dividing "The Land of a Million Smiles" into a million different facets. With no end in sight. Should the fighting stop and the Red Shirts compromise their position and yet again be politically marginalized? Or should the fight continue until all parties are satisfied? Are people really on such different sides from one another or can negotiations be worked out? Who believes what exactly and who exactly is benefiting from this?
The following is really what scares me. I cannot let these past three weeks, and especially five days make me forget the rest of my time in Thailand. Everything I have worked for, every moment I spent with my families, Thai friends, or American companions, is not lost because we had to evacuate the country. Our pass-ons for next semester are still created, and our families are still intact in Isaan. It doesn't worry me that I will not remember the lessons I learned from my first three and a half months in Thailand; I am most concerned that people at home are too worried about my safety, so the political turmoil will overshadow the rest of the semester for those with whom I wish to share stories and lessons of my journey. I don't know how to say enough times that I am safe, but the country of Thailand is not, and that the most important aspects of my semester have nothing to do with politics, but with community, education, self- determination, reciprocity and sustainability (not only in an environmental sense.)
This has been the strangest way to end such a semester, where I have been stretched and molded in ways I never expected. There must have been a time in Thailand where I didn't understand what my program was all about, but I can't remember it. Any uncertainties I had are associated with pre-departure in the states. Now, I'm sitting on the plane, remembering the anxieties I once had about being in Thailand, meeting new people, and getting thrown in to a new educational model, and thinking about the anxieties I now have of things returning to the way they were four months ago. It's really hard for me to separate who I was when I left versus who I am now. I didn't really change fundamentally, but I know that I have subtly adapted some idiosyncrasies as a result of this semester. Will they stay or will they go? Am I even aware of what those adaptions were? I don't have a clue. It's absolutely overwhelming, but reverse culture shock, here I come.