This morning I sprung out of bed at a cool 7:30 a.m. and ate a hearty Thai breakfast to prepare for the day ahead.
We have spent the previous two days planning and creating a conservation lesson for the children at the Koh Phra Thong island school. We were split into groups and each group was responsible for teaching a 20 minute English lesson centered around a theme. Our theme was ‘what eats what’, so we created vocabulary cards for some of the more exotic animals that inhabited the island with the goal of teaching what they eat.
Now it was finally time to put all our planning into action.
We boarded the retrofitted pickup trucks that would taxi us to the pier where we would take a long tail boat to the island. The slapping wind helped wake us as we mentally prepared to experience a world so different from our own. The school is the only place with internet on the island and the rest of the island has no electricity 23 hours of the day. Koh Phra Thong has power for 1 hour each day for cooking purposes, but otherwise its inhabitants are totally off the grid. I mulled this over while we were trucking along towards the pier. I thought about the children we were about to teach and wondered how my childhood would have been different if I had no electricity.
We finally arrived at the pier and climbed into the weathered long tail boats. I expected to cross a large open ocean to reach the island, but we were weaving through the shallow mangroves for most of the ride. This part of the trip made me extremely nostalgic. I thought back to the times I would glide along the glassy reflections of the mangroves behind my dad’s house, only here we saw monkeys in the trees instead of the birds that ornamented the trees back home.
When we reached the island, we pulled up to a dry rotted dock and walked across a long ramp that laid flat in the high tide onto the pier. We walked past several houses on stilts to reach the mainland and turned left towards the school. We found a table inside a large covered area on the left immediately following the school entrance and set down our things. Each group had a table positioned around the edge of the room for their short lesson. The students filed in and sat down in neat lines in the center of the room while their teacher gave them directions. It was slightly intimidating to see the number of kids we’d be teaching, but as soon as we got our first group of students their enthusiasm quelled my unease. We taught a couple groups before taking a short break for lunch before teaching the remaining sessions. After our lunch break the students trickled back in and we played soccer and basketball with them before we resumed.
These short periods when we played games after lunch and after we finished the rest of the lessons comprised the most impactful moments of the day. I was amazed by their energy and their enthusiasm. They were responsive and engaged during the lessons, but when we were casually interacting with them they observed our words and actions with rapt attention. I saw myself in each of them. I recalled the curiosity and the blithe demeanor that characterized my childhood.
When it was time to leave, we walked back to the pier and sought shelter under a pavilion as it started to pour. The rain danced along the concrete as I thought about the similarities I observed between my childhood self and the children at the island school. It made me question whether my American luxuries have become a necessity, because those students reminded me that they certainly didn’t used to be. They seemed every bit as happy as I was at their age yet they only have electricity for an hour a day. This day has been my greatest reward from the trip thus far, but it has also inspired my greatest question: What do I truly need to be happy? Can I smile as wide as those children even when my smile is my happiest possession? Now it was low tide and the boats that were anchored slightly inshore sat beached on the sand. The ramp we took onto the pier was now severely steep and we carefully scaled down it to the dock when the rain finally subsided. I gripped the railing tight, sure that one misstep would have me sliding all the way down. When I reached the bottom and firmly stepped off the ramp I couldn’t help but crack a wide smile as my foot stomped right through the dock.