In the summer of 2015 I was very lucky to be selected by Caritas Italiana to take part in a project where they partnered with Marist Asia Foundation to send some of their own volunteers to help in Ranong for a year.
I say “lucky” because I hadn’t even been chosen at the beginning, and was only called back because someone else had given up their spot.
I was obviously very happy and excited, but for reasons that now seem quite unimportant: I enjoyed teaching, Thailand had always been one of my favourite countries to be in, and I had been interested in the plight of the people of Myanmar ever since being introduced to their history by some great professors in university.
So I packed my things and went to Ranong, ready to spend a great year, work hard, and learn interesting things about the people living there.
I didn’t know yet that I would actually find a new home, family, and community.
I loved the school and the students as soon as I met them, and I learned to love Ranong after a few weeks. It is not the prettiest town in Thailand, but it has its own rugged kind of beauty for those who can see.
Or maybe I am just biased because Ranong is now my home and the place where I know I can find some of the people I care about the most, and that makes it beautiful.
Either way, my time here would have been nothing without MAF students and staff. I felt immediately so welcome and so at ease that after just a few months, I knew a single year couldn’t possibly be enough.
I didn’t want to leave my new home so soon, so after finishing the programme with Caritas Italiana , I came back to Ranong and volunteered with MAF for another 6 months, to finish the school year.
I’m not sure I can explain my feelings fully, but teaching at MAF has been the most fulfilling work I have done so far.
The students are all so sweet and funny, and so open to other people. Their families trust us completely as teachers, and everyone is always happy to say hello (mingalaba) when you are walking around town.
This isn’t to say it’s all peachy all the time: the students are still mostly teenagers, and as much as they value education as a way to improve their lives, they also act like every teenager ever (although that’s a bit comforting to watch, because their lives outside of school are often very far from that of the average Western adolescent, so it’s nice that they can still act silly for a bit — within certain limits……..).
Also the weather can be hard (though the body DOES get used to it after the first few months, just as the nose gets used to the smell from the fish factories).
Good cheese is hard to find (but there’s always fabulous Bangkok one night bus away), and things like electricity, running water, and the internet cant always be taken for granted (although they ARE fine like 80-90% of the time, do not worry).
I swear that almost every single day something unexpected happens and some of the plans for the day go out of the window. But… all of these tiny, mundane inconveniences just make the experience more interesting, and absolutely pale in comparison with the rest.
Inside jokes and nicknames with the students, panicky 10pm texts asking for help with the homework you had explained in detail that same morning, playing with the younger preschoolers, exam answers mentioning something you explained weeks before and was sure everyone had forgotten.
And then there are the lessons spent discussing something that is completely outside of the programne but that the students really want to know about because this is their chance to learn EVERYTHING (Trump’s election, space and galaxies, atomic bombs), birthday parties, sharing snacks and bits of life, learning Burmese songs. Learning everything, in fact.
I have seen the students’ English improve a lot, so I know I have done “something”, but I also know I have learned more from them, than they from me. How to be patient, how to be curious, how to endure, how to be joyful anyway, how to try again, which app takes the best selfies. All of these things, and more, make it all worth it, and easy.
I didn’t miss anything while I was in Ranong, because my life was so full.
I arrived in Ranong almost by chance, and there I found a new community and life. I still don’t really want to leave now, but I have to. I am already working on ways to come back.
I would really like to thank Caritas Italiana for sending me to Ranong last year, and Marist Asia Foundation for taking me back this year! I was the happiest and luckiest volunteer!