I’ve trained my teenage traveler well. I’ve never been more certain. After 30-plus hours of airport and flying time, when the wheels of her plane touched down in Los Angeles, the first thing she did was text her mother.
“Just landed safe!”
Having just celebrated her 16th birthday, my daughter has done more traveling than many adults. What she’s gained from her travel experiences can’t be measured. The fact that she understands how lucky she is, comes together to make her the person – teenager – she is.
It was during spring break, that she was offered the opportunity to go to Thailand with Adventures Cross-Country (ARCC) on a summer adventure that combined community service with some unique, amazing actually, travel opportunities. The preparations began almost immediately. From shots to physicals, to more shots, and prescriptions for antimalarials and “just in case” antibiotics. And then there was the last-minute decision to get dry shampoo. Not on the official list, but a must-have in her mind, along with hydrocortisone cream and the Ex-Officio bug-repelling hoodie she wore (and apparently slept in) the entire trip.
I spent a great amount of time helping her get ready for the trip. Far more time and attention than I ever give myself when getting ready to travel. But after weeks of preparation, in what seemed like an instant she was on her way. In the time it took for her to send a quick goodbye text from LAX, she was gone and off the grid.
What her group of a dozen teens did in Thailand during that first week of radio silence was exhausting and impressive.
They spent their first and only night in Bangkok in a hotel. Less than 24 hours after landing, they squeezed in their first service project, teaching, and volunteering in a local school, before hopping on a night train to Chiang Mai. From there they boarded open-air bus-like trucks and bumped their way along dirt roads for a couple of hours, leaving their comfort zones behind before reaching the Village Hill Tribe.
It might have been the closest many of the kids have ever gotten to a ‘middle of nowhere type setting.’ Surrounded by rice paddies, the teenagers taught English and poured the cement floor of a library in the making. Their home away from home was a village classroom. Tables and chairs were pushed aside to clear floor space for the kids to sleep at night. There were bugs of the flying and crawling variety and the board in the classroom was the kind that actually still uses chalk. Though they didn’t see the inside of any actual homes, my daughter got the impression the groups’ accommodations were nice in comparison to some of the villagers that may or may not have had electricity.
There were no flush toilets. Showers were accomplished by filling a bucket with a hose and dumping it over your head. There aren’t many folks, let alone teenagers, that can rough it in those conditions, do community service work that involves hard labor, and most impressively, still be smiling at the end of the day. When my home phone rang about a week after she left, there were no complaints but the shower, in her words, “was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
For two weeks, she traveled through Thailand with two college-aged leaders. As a group, they learned who was shy, who was happy, and yes, even who tended to lean toward the grumpy side. They learned how to work together, whether it was lining up to pass buckets of wet, heavy concrete, or navigating and actually sleeping on overnight trains. Somewhere along the line, they also figured out moving trains provided good reception for calls home. It was one of the few times during the trip the kids were allowed to have their cell phones. ARCC has a strict no cell phone policy. When the group met for the first time at Los Angeles International Airport, leaders collected all cell phones.
Teenagers can get a bad rap. Granted sometimes, they deserve it, but in many instances, the reputation distorts the facts. Put teens in the right situation, in this case, remote sections of Thailand, and it becomes clear how impressive they actually are.
Along with mastering new construction skills and teaching English to dozens of children, they spent two days working at an elephant sanctuary. Cooking breakfast takes on new meaning when it’s for a 30-plus-year-old elephant and it’s done outside over what would remind you of a large campfire. When an unexpected call came from a nearby farm, they spent a warm afternoon harvesting banana stalks to add to the elephants’ diets, then came back to the sanctuary and cooled off while giving the gentle giants a bath in the river. I never thought of elephants as the cute and cuddly type, but the hundreds of photographs my daughter came home with prove me wrong over and over again.
Experiences like this can’t be gained by reading books or searching the internet. They’re learned by traveling and doing. My daughter learned about Mahouts, Thai people who dedicate their lives to caring for rescued elephants, by talking to them and working with them. She learned how to lay a cement floor without the luxury of any fancy equipment. All of the teenagers learned that people, themselves included, can do great things when they put their minds to it.
As a group of American teenagers, I think the kids also benefited and learned from each other. They came from all over the United States; the East Coast, West Coast, and in between. Some had traveled extensively with their families, some came from affluent households, others saved every penny for years to make the trip a reality. But regardless of where they came from, they all came back with a unique glimpse of Thailand, the people, and the amazing animals who call it home.
Understanding cultural differences goes a long way toward understanding each other and living with each other, in a world that seems to grow smaller every day. It seems like something that could come in handy for any teenager, or any adult for that matter.
Dana received a media rate for her daughter’s Thailand adventure, but as always her thoughts and opinions are her own.