I’m taking pictures of the shadows behind a crumbling temple, knowing my photos can speak only a fraction of what this place is like. I’ve been in Ayutthaya, Thailand for almost two weeks now, but I still am taken back when I see the century old temples that dot the skyline, over four hundred Buddhist “wats” are scattered all over the city. Today I notice a Thai man watching me, and unlike many of the locals, who smile shyly and avoid eye contact when I smile back, he confidently approaches me. He speaks a bit of English, and we strike up the kind of simple conversation I’ve become both accustomed to and appreciative of in the last week. Both of us stumble over the pronunciation of the others language, exchanging short sentences and phrases, but I am just grateful that he is willing to chat. Many Thai people I interact with seem hesitant around foreigners, whispering to each other “Farang! Farang!” as I walk by (foreigner in Thai), keeping a safe distance from the out of place American who is curiously far from the normal tourist spots. I’m sure part of this has to do with the nervous and overwhelmed look on my face as I dodge motor scooters and navigate my new world.
My new friend Aroo tells me he is a nurse at the local hospital that I went to for the physical required for my work visa. “Ajarn…anuban,” I tell him; and then in English; “I am a teacher”. I’m come here to Ayutthaya to work as an English teacher, hoping gain a new cultural perspective on education through teaching in a Buddhist culture.
“Where from?” he asks, and I pronounce my own country the Thai way, because I’ve learned it’s better understood when I say “Amarigaaaa”. It’s strange how quickly you learn the “right” way to mispronounce your own language so as to be comprehended.
“Why you come alone?” he asks of my travel, and as is the case with most conversations I’ve had since I arrived, I think of how to answer this in simple phrases. In the last couple weeks, I’ve become very aware how fast, jarbled, and often incomprehensible my American speech is. In this country that is struggling to catch up with surrounding Asian countries in English proficiency, I recognize very quickly that I will be navigating a lot of language barriers while staying here, which rattles my confidence a bit.
Yet I try to keep in mind that language barriers don’t necessitate lack of understanding; no matter the words we use to express it, we are all having a human experience. Before I manage to form a response, a soft smile forms on his lips, and he says with barely a Thai accent, “Freedom?”
Freedom. This person who I’ve just met seems to understand my experience better than I do myself. I’d been wandering around ancient temples and areas of Buddhist worship for nearly an hour trying to find peace of mind after a stressful week, but this one word reminder feels more sacred and comforting than all of the spaces I’d been walking through. My first week here had been a vivid adventure, rich with newness and dreams fulfilled, but today I’d been struggling with feelings of isolation and being different, wishing I had learned more Thai, traveled with other Westerners who could relate to my everyday confusion at even the simplest tasks. Yet in an instant, this person who I can barely communicate with reminds me why I took this journey on my own, while also reminding me of the universal nature of the human experience.
As a solo traveler I may have bought only one plane ticket, but even here on the other side of the globe, everyday I meet so many people who are seeking the same experiences as me. Sometimes I am able to share those similarities in English, and other times I just have to smile and recognize that beneath the apparent differences in speech and appearance, we are the same.
What was also valuable about this brief conversation was that I don’t think I knew I came here for freedom until he said it. I knew I came for adventure, I knew I came to grow, and to expand my perspective. But really, leaving what I knew was stepping into an unknown that opens the door to infinite possibility, and what I was seeking through broadening my world was indeed freedom. Thailand is a country of surprises, and every morning I wake up, and I have no idea what is going to happen. I see a child dressed like a dragon coming down my street, I go to the night market and grab random food because I can’t read signs, and I watch a Buddhist monk in his robe riding a motor taxi on the highway. It’s exhilarating and terrifying to be in a place where I know nothing, I feel like a clueless child, sometimes joyful, and sometimes fussy because I can’t quite get my way. Yet it’s incredibly freeing to no longer be able to identify the intelligent person I thought I was only weeks before. I can’t pretend to know anything anymore, so I am forced to let go and step into the unknown in each moment.
Of course, I have moments of defeat where I’d gladly step back into the simplicity of the known if I could. I don’t feel free when I’m lost in the streets of a random city in Thailand in 105 degree weather just hoping to stumble upon either a market or a road that I recognize, there is a stray dog following me, and there isn’t a motor taxi in sight. Then again, even confusion here has led to opportunity. One afternoon, I give a cab driver directions to my apartment and he misunderstands and takes me to a temple on the other side of the island. At first I am frustrated at my inability to communicate, wondering how I’ve already forgot the phrases for left and right. Then I realize that this miscommunication and two wrong turns have landed me at Buddhist ruin that is hundreds of years old… this is as beautiful as an accident can be. I pay the driver and embrace my unexpected destination. I am lost, I am exactly where I need to be, and I am free.