Sometimes the stories we experience live only in our minds as memories.
Once in a while, a story becomes a pivotal moment in our life, and we tell this story again and again because insight emerges and we realize that the story itself is a marker for transformation.
A story led me to Thailand, back in the early 90s. And the story really began when I rented a motorbike in the small town of Rayong in the East Coast of Thailand and putt-putted around the small dirt roads of the town’s outskirts.
I knew how to change gear in a small motorbike but did not know much Thai language.
That day, I was seeking a small waterfall off the beaten path, deep in rubber plantation country. I did find the waterfall after some kilometers of dirt and dust, and I spent the afternoon relaxing and cooling off in the water. Took a dip in the water, and dripping, wrote damp entries in a journal, writing which actually was not about the stream of consciousness that awash us sometimes when we experience the zen-like moments of simplicity after our strife in large-city lives we live.I had the zen moment, and I used that afternoon to write down the bare bones of why I was going to change my life from a rat-race type existence to one with more meaning and purpose. (As much as a barely-20 year old can, any way.)
As the story goes, the writing entered a flow and I lost track of time. When I looked up from the scribbling, my clothes in which I’d jumped into the water had dried, and the light had lengthened. It was getting dark.
The practical self reminded me I had to get back to town immediately before the tropical dusk took over the day quickly andI would be left with a two-wheeler trip on a dusty, unmarked road with no street lights to guide me.
The trip was slow as the shadows lengthened and darkness engulfed the trail. Several times I cursed the carelessness of not paying attention to time. The heat had eased with the sun disappearing, but I was sweating from nervousness that I would be lost in the dark wilderness of the unfamiliar geography, and have to resign myself to a night of being eaten by mosquitos. (Dengue! Malaria!)
Then a small light appeared in the darkness. There was a house up ahead. I steered the motorbike toward it.
It was the home of an older couple. I didn’t know any Thai language then, so through hand gestures I tried to communicate that I was lost, that I was looking for the highway to Rayong town.
The man, Khun Luong (Mr. Uncle to you, not his real name) spoke to me and of course I didn’t understand. His wife Khun Thip (not her real name) spoke too, and it was a musical but mysterious utterance to me. But the honest smiles on their faces spoke to me loudly of kindness and I decided it was better to open myself to their care than to brave a blind journey to try to go back to the town that night.
So when Khun Thip led me by hand up the bare wooden steps to their one-room home, I followed her. Khun Luong left with a couple of buckets to go somewhere, and Khun Thip served me rice and boiled bananas and a salad with white flowers in it, and I ate with her using my hands.
When Khun Luong came back a good half hour later with two buckets of cool water, I let his wife lead me by hand to take a bath outdoors, with a sarong she’d lent me.
I slept soundly on the floor of their home, inside the mosquito net, until morning.
In the morning, Khun Luong pointed the way to the highway, and after thanking them in my language (which seemed terribly inadequate), I took the motorbike back to Rayong and continued to my holiday at Koh Samed, an island off the coast. Seafood and bare feet on squeaky-clean white sand. Cheap beer and reggae music if you want it. Crystal clear water. Everything a backpacker wants in the tropics, and more.
But the thought of the kindness of the couple who took me in when I was lost, who trusted I wouldn’t be some psychofreak tourist on a motorbike, resonated in my mind.
Where had I ever experienced such unconditional kindness? Where in the world did people who had so little give so much?
The life I had led up to that time streamed in my thoughts. I had never lacked for anything in my life. I grew up with people who cleaned up after me, who made order out of my mess. I had traveled so much as a young person, and I had not had the consciousness to think about whether people were kind. I was always happy when I got what I wanted. Did I learn about kindness of people who had little to give, yet were generous beyond their means?
These questions haunted me. The journey I had set out for myself that year had changed in my mind. I had set out for some hedonistic experience for a year, not even thinking whether my recklessness and goal-less existence was going to present any kind of issue to any one. My parents trusted me. I had no obligations. I was free to do whatever I wanted to, and I did not have deadlines to meet.
That story in Rayong brought me to a new consciousness. What did life mean, and what might I have within me to contribute to the well-being of others?
I have had a satisfying career as an educator. I’ve used my understanding and skills in ways that have helped many children and adults to believe in themselves. I haven’t quit, yet. I’m still at it.
The one thing that keeps me going, that keeps me wanting to learn, is the thought that there is a place for compassion in the mundane, every day existence when we meet people like Khun Luong and Khun Thip, and emerge with a better understanding of what it means to be human.
I am far from knowing for sure if what I do every day is going to make a difference to any one.
But one thing I’ve learned since those 12 hours embraced by the kindness of two Thai people in Rayong is that there are people in this world who embody what we all need. To be kinder. To be more gracious. To be more human.
And that is light worth chasing.