“They aren’t foreign, we are.” Our instructors remind us as we navigate the Thai toilets, step into the mud to plant rice, and take a bite of the strange dish our host-mother has prepared for our dinner. This is true of any place; there will always be a foreigner and a local, a stranger and a resident. It doesn’t matter if you travel to Thailand or walk three blocks to a grocery store you’ve never been to before: a world has long since existed prior to your arrival, and has been complete without you. It’s there for the duration of your visit to be explained and explored, and after you leave, it will go on without you, often as if you were never there.
Its a shocking concept, and begs the question; what is our purpose in traveling there? Are we selfish? Do we want a experience just as trivially as we want a pack of hot dogs? No, I think that what we want most is to lose our world: the feelings of uncertainty and innocence a foreigner seems a disadvantage, but it’s the necessary escape from playing the role of local in our own communities. We would far rather expose ourselves to a Buddhist temple or a Thai festival because they change us, and while places can be complete and developed, the our understanding of the world is never this complete. We travel farther to increase the likelihood of a new, fresh and unique experience, and hardly ever come back without at least one.
In Thailand I have had many of these already; a discussion with Buddhist monks from Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos about Christianity (along with much input from our Brazilian student Gui.) I’ve meditated in the Sukhothai ruins, I’ve learned that in Laos, two sneezes means somebody misses you, and when your ears are warm somebody is talking about you behind your back. Ive dared to try durian ice cream. All of these have contributed to my never completed but always growing world.