I was preparing to embark into a 3-month trip through Southeast Asia and could not ignore the “calling” to do some volunteering work during this time. I had been thinking about that for a long time, but never had the opportunity to do so. Since I am very interested in the field of Education, it was only natural to look for positions where I could spend my time teaching (and learning!) – and that’s where ATMA SEVA came into my life. Having planned to start my trip in the South of Thailand, the prospect of living in Chiang Mai for a while was a very inviting idea.
I found ATMA SEVA through a Google search, contacted David (programs director) and got very excited about the program. He was incredibly patient to answer my endless questions and put me in contact with two previous volunteers, Hunaid and Jamie. They were both very helpful and from their descriptions I could picture the experience ahead of me. Well, sort of. You can never be entirely prepared for it: surprises and unexpected situations will happen. And that’s not too bad after all!
I was assigned to teach English at Maekhue Wittaya School in a village located approximately 40 minutes from Chiang Mai. Although I did not have much experience in teaching, Katherine, ATMA SEVA’s volunteer coordinator, gave me a lot of support and provided guides and books that immensely helped me during the classes. What I encountered at the school was much beyond my expectations: extremely respectful students, curious and open-minded teachers, and friendly staff.
My host at the school, Ms. Rattana, was a sweetheart, and did everything she could to make me feel comfortable: from bringing local (and delicious) breakfast to making sure that a vegetarian lunch was cooked for me everyday. Students surprised me with their engagement at school activities (they helped clean and organize the space for events), as well as for their English knowledge. Pronunciation, I figured, was the main problem – they were often too shy to speak and as a result, most of them had a lot of room for development. Thus, I tried to engage them in several activities that would foster communication. From videos to presentations to games, my main objective was to let them feel comfortable with both my presence and the language, so that their voices could be heard.
The main challenge I faced was not being able to speak the local language – sometimes it was difficult to explain simple things. However, it also made the experience more exciting and fun – I would often convey my message through gestures, drawings (that most of the time made them laugh) and examples. It is so interesting to understand another culture and have the opportunity to witness genuine events – I was lucky enough to see presentations for the Thai Language Day, Sport’s Day, ASEAN Day and also Mother’s Day. Each of them was unique and showed me a little bit of the habits and beliefs of the Thai culture.
Another highlight of my experience was living with a Thai family. My expectations were again surpassed, and I was gifted with a loving, big family that received me as one of their own. From strolls at local markets – with personal guides that gave me detailed explanations of every fruit, vegetable or delicacy presented at the booths – to visiting family members who lived two hours away – where I could experience Thai life in the countryside –, it was definitely unforgettable. I received local gifts, blessings (from senior family members), tried different foods and drinks, and learned a bit more about Buddhism, which I reckoned is not only a religion, but also a fascinating way of living.
The moment I had to say good-bye was bittersweet, as I felt time went by so fast and there was so much more I wanted to do to help those incredible people. All in all, I took home not only pictures, but also special moments that will last in my memory for a lifetime. I am grateful to ATMA SEVA for making this happen, and to Thai people for teaching me their wonderful and special way of seeing the world.
written by: Daiana Stolf