Nong Khai, Thailand — Notes from the Field includes reports from young people volunteering in ministries of Catholic sisters. A partnership with Catholic Volunteer Network, the project began in the summer of 2015. This is our fifth round of bloggers: Katie Delaney is a Good Shepherd Volunteer with the Fundación Madre Josefa (Mother Joseph Foundation) in Santiago, Chile, and Lauren Magee is a Good Shepherd Volunteer at Hands of Hope, an income-generating project that provides dignified employment for villagers living with HIV/AIDS in Nong Khai, Thailand.
Songkran (สงกรานต์) is celebrated every April among Thai families and friends to mark the beginning of a new year. Among foreigners, it is commonly referred to as the Thai Water Festival because the three-day-long event, which this year was April 13-15, includes nonstop water-throwing.
The water signifies a purification of the spirit and blessings for the year ahead. Elders and community leaders are specifically recognized during this time, and gratitude is given. Staff members from all of the Good Shepherd Sisters' projects come together to honor the sisters every year, pouring water into their hands and speaking blessings for the future. It is customary for the receiver to pour water back onto the giver, so this was also an opportunity for the sisters to share blessings and communicate their appreciation to staff.
While Songkran is deeply rooted in Buddhist tradition, it's also a time to step outside of your comfort zone and free yourself from societal restrictions. For example, to accommodate the traditional water fights that occur between cars during Songkran, the Thai government modified a new law prohibiting people from traveling in the beds of pickup trucks. What was originally a zero-tolerance policy changed to officers giving only verbal warnings of safety. It seemed that everyone just wanted to have fun. Thailand reaches its highest temperatures in April and May, so all appreciate a little bit of relief from the heat.
Many Thai people choose to travel during Songkran, as many businesses close for the holiday. My housemate Lotte, a Danish volunteer, and I decided to venture out on a short bike ride to the city center of Nong Khai and stay the night at a guesthouse well-known among budget-conscious foreigners. We had both been to this guesthouse many times before and could navigate the area well, so we felt prepared. We resolved to have a relaxing Songkran and to avoid the drinking and partying of young adults our age.
I've served in Nong Khai for eight months already, so I have developed a routine that I am rather content with, and many aspects of Thai culture have become my new normal. When I first arrived, new noises, strange creatures and language barriers often made me feel out of place. Some of these culture clashes faded away quickly and others I am still struggling with, but overall I have gained a sense of ease in Thailand. Through developing relationships and constantly inputting new information through my daily experiences, I have acclimated to my life and expanded the comfort zone that I started this year with. I know how to be happy here.
As Lotte and I ventured through the busy town streets, however, I was reminded of how restrictive my comfort zone still is. During the day, we enjoyed the water festivities and snacking on some of our favorite foods, but once the sun began to set and the weather turned chilly, anxiety started to creep in. Everything seemed unfamiliar in this new light, and trying to anticipate the unexpected was an unnerving task.
A dancing group offering free lessons approached us twice, and both times I forced myself to deny them. I knew logically that I had nothing to lose and everything to gain, but there was something giving me pause. The spotlight of being the only foreigner dancing and the potential embarrassment to follow was intimidating. When you are stripped of your security blankets, you no longer have the freedom to make mistakes, and you have sole responsibility for yourself.
I hesitated and overthought every potential scenario in my head of what could happen if I danced. So simple an act, but so stressful for me in that moment. I've always wanted to be the person who takes risks, unafraid of attention, but I had to face the reality that I'm not that person.
With the regret of a missed opportunity hanging over our heads, we decided to walk to a popular village temple and participate in the blessings of the Buddhist statues. We had never been to this temple before and had only a printed map as our guide.
With each step we made, I was stepping farther and farther away from my comfort zone. We navigated our way through groups of teenagers waiting to soak the next unsuspecting pedestrians, and we squinted to read street signs, as, by now, darkness was more abundant than sunlight.
We made it almost halfway when we started to question ourselves. We both enjoyed visiting temples, but under these conditions, we were acting more out of obligation. We ended up turning back and laughing over dinner as we remembered the events of the night. In my self-loathing for not being fearless, I had forgotten that comfort zones serve a purpose, and they protect you from unsafe situations.
A healthy lifestyle must have a balance of challenge and stability. A life of constant adventure would become exhausting, with no space to recharge and cuddle up with the familiar. However, a life completely reliant on routine would be unfulfilling.
I never want to stop pushing myself, and as long as I am serving others, I never will. The best way I know to break the confines of my comfort zone is through developing relationships, because humans are ever-changing. As I enter the Thai New Year, I am putting energy toward relationships and growth. I recognize my comfort zone is limited, but has the potential to grow infinitely. I will always remain cautious, but I don't want my actions to continue to be reliant on my fears.
[Lauren Magee is a Good Shepherd Volunteer at Hands of Hope, an income-generating project that provides dignified employment for villagers living with HIV/AIDS in Nong Khai, Thailand.]