My time in pastoral New Zealand inspired me to pursue another goal of my gap year: to acquaint myself with some form of spirituality.
I signed up for a yoga retreat at a mountaintop ashram overlooking the Tasman Sea and lush, rolling hills dotted by grazing Merino sheep and Friesian cows.
I had never taken time to just sit and give my mind a rest. It was an incredible, rejuvenating experience. For the first time in my life, I could let go of my inhibitions and break through mental barriers, amongst complete strangers from every corner of the planet.
As a baby step outside of my comfort zone, the retreat helped prepare me for my first visit to Asia.
In Bangkok, I met up with a friend from home. Weaving through Bangkok traffic in a taxi was a numbing experience. Temples adorned each block. Later, as we explored the bustling city on foot, took-took drivers advertised their business to us every second step.
Exhausted from sensory overload, we navigated south to explore the palm-laden islands of the Gulf of Siam. The medley of turquoise water, green curry, wild puppies and vitamin D was perfect therapy.
On the island of Koh Phangan, however, I experienced my first terrifying Hallowe’en.
Alone in my bungalow at 3 am, I was awakened by footsteps on the patio. I could hear men’s voices outside and suddenly saw the door handle twist.
Dropping my voice to its lowest octave, I yelled to let them know someone was inside. They continued trying to enter. It was pitch black outside, and there was no security at this $15-a-night bungalow compound.
My mind raced to formulate a plan. Suddenly, I heard someone outside say, “No, no. That’s not your room.”
When I heard a motorcycle take off outside, I strapped on my Petzl headlight and bolted out the door and across the beach to the bungalow of a travelling couple I had met earlier.
They generously invited me in, and even shared their bed with me. In the morning, I realized that my late-night intrusion may have interrupted their honeymoon.
The strangers were probably just drunken travellers who had the wrong bungalow, but the experience definitely made me more aware of my surroundings before I ventured north to Chiang Rai.
I arrived during the biggest festival of the year, the Thai Buddhist Loy Krathong festival. It’s the northern Thai people’s way of thanking the environment for all it has provided them.
At the organization where I would be volunteering, I was soon busy folding banana leaves to decorate my krathong for the festival. Krathongs – natural floating bowls composed of banana leaves, candles, flowers and incense – are released on water to express gratitude to Buddha and symbolize the cleansing of the spirit.
The festival made me realize why Thailand is coined “the land of 1,000 smiles.” I have never seen people as jubilant and passionate as that evening.
Massive hot air balloons were released, fireworks exploded, pretty Thai girls danced in traditional costume and vendors sold a rainbow of Thai fruits and desserts.
Feasting on deep-fried bananas and mangoes, I stepped nimbly to avoid having my toes crushed in the mobs of people.
The fireworks were completely unregulated. At one point, the group of Aussie volunteers I was with had to dodge a crooked one that rocketed into the crowd.
It was a lively start to my volunteer placement teaching English and assisting with childcare among the Akha and Lahu hill tribes in northern Thailand.
This was my biggest step yet outside of my comfort zone. Living in a barn in very basic conditions in the northern Thai jungle was both heart-warming and mind-altering.
Chickens, pigs and dogs roamed the village, and spiders the size of my hand took up residence in the hut-like bathroom. Children around me played in pure joy with trucks made out of empty milk cartons.
During my entire cultural home stay, I observed the daily life of these generous people and left having taken much more in life experience from them than anything I could ever give in return.
It was also on this trip that I gained a sudden insight into the direction I wanted to choose for a career.
When I heard we would be taking rides on elephants, it sounded exotic and adventurous. But soon after arriving at the tourist outfit, I realized this was not the case.
Elephant tamers sat atop the elephants’ heads with whips in hand as they loaded tourists onto the animals’ backs.
Heavy chains around their necks and feet linked the elephants to posts, as they trudged through the same loop, over and over again. At the end of the loop, their tamers took them to a clearing and made them dance for the tourists.
That was my breaking point. I recognized that I was in a different culture, but sheer anger and frustration burned inside me as I questioned how we could make animals suffer like this for our enjoyment.
This led to the first significant epiphany of my gap year: realizing how much it upset me to see wildlife in such a desperate state, I decided in that moment that using my passion to protect wildlife and natural environments would become my career focus.
Following this episode, I decided to cool off by taking a dip in a Thai waterfall. I plunged in fully clothed to abide by the local Muslim customs.
The swim helped clear my mind, but was definitely not worth what would follow.
Within 24 hours, while teaching at a special needs school, I began to feel lightheaded, to the point that I couldn’t stand up.
One of the American volunteers accompanied me to the Chiang Rai hospital, where I was placed in a wheelchair and given a wristband and nametag in a language I couldn’t begin to understand. The unfamiliarity all around made it difficult to remain calm.
After a quick checkup, I was sent back to the volunteer organization with some anti-anxiety medication. That night, the feelings returned more powerfully than before. Pain wrapped my entire core.
Back at the hospital, a nurse informed me that I likely had H1N1. I was petrified.
I soon found myself in a private hospital room with IV tubes poked into my arms. After my blood tests were processed, the doctor now suspected a new, unknown version of influenza.
I recall one of the volunteers saying, “Don’t worry sweetie. Your parents will fly over.” What did that mean? As in: my parents will fly over to say their final goodbye?
Further blood samples were taken, and the doctor returned with good news: I just had a bad kidney infection. I spent the next three days hooked up to the IV trolley, watching Chinese and Thai television and trying to communicate with the nurses.
Despite my initial concerns about the care I would receive, I came to discover that the Thai health care system is one of the best in the world and the friendly staff made my stay as pleasant as possible.
God bless health insurance.