I think it’s safe to say that wanderlust is in my genes. As a graduation gift, my great aunt gave me something I’ll treasure forever: a stack of original photographs she took when she visited Bangkok in the early ‘70s. I recognized all of the iconic landmarks from the travel books I was reading. There were photos of Wat Pho, the Chao Phraya River, and the Grand Palace. I love these photographs because they reflect so much character. Faded and aged, each holds a precious memory. I can still read the date printed on the side of each photo: 1972. Coincidentally, my great aunt and I were both in our early 20’s when we visited Thailand.
My excitement grew with each story she shared about her own trip to Bangkok, almost 45 years ago. The photos came to life as she recounted little details about each one. She told me about how dark the water was as she floated down the river on the way to the Grand Palace, how heavy and humid the air was, how friendly and joyful the locals were. I imagined her rowing down the Chao Phraya in a rickety canoe, befriending locals who had never met a foreigner before. What an adventure it must have been, before cell phones and language translation apps, relying only on gestures to break through the language barrier. I couldn’t wait to explore the Land of Smiles and see how my modern experience compared to hers.
Inspired by these beautiful photos and the stories they carried, I decided to recreate them as a surprise for my aunt. In some ways, my travel experiences were very different from hers. Instead of rowing down the river a rickety canoe, I rode in a motorized boat with other tourists. Instead of using gestures to communicate, I found that most Thai locals spoke a little English. We laughed together as I tried to speak Thai, and used Google translate on our phones to communicate. The Grand Palace and Wat Pho were much more crowded than they were when my aunt visited. But some things remained the same--the timeless beauty of the architecture, the warm smiles of the locals, the thrill of exploring a new place.
My friend and I had a ball exploring the beautiful Grand Palace and temples through my aunt’s photos. One of my favorite things about recreating them was the way it helped me connect with locals. I didn’t quite anticipate how eager people would be to help me and my friend find the places in the pictures. Palace guards, tour guides and even other tourists were excited to help us, and wanted to hear more about what we were doing. It felt like a scavenger hunt to find the exact spots those photos were snapped over 40 years ago.
Not only did this little photography adventure help me connect with locals and other tourists, but it also helped me connect with my aunt on a deeper level. I loved visiting the same places she visited, and picturing what it must have felt like to be there four decades ago. My aunt is a strong, adventurous, spirited woman and is such an inspiration in my life. She started traveling before it was common for women to travel solo, and I love hearing her talk about her experiences visiting big cities and remote villages in every corner of the world. She embodies boldness and grace, and has inspired me to chase my own dreams. It was an amazing experience to follow in her footsteps in such a tangible way.
To read about all of my adventures in Thailand, click here.
I believe we each have a unique purpose; but If I’m being completely honest, discerning God’s will for my life often feels like trying to put together a 10,000 piece puzzle, without an idea of what the finished picture will look like. And other times, all of the pieces come together and begin to make sense, and I know exactly why I’m here and what my purpose is. Out of 7 billion people in the world, God brought me to this little girl.
When I first met her, she was very shy. Her big brown eyes wondered whether they could trust me. They held haunting memories of things no kid should ever have to see. Those little eyes have seen realities darker and more terrifying than my worst nightmares. They've wept tears of hopelessness, tears of despair.
The first time I got her to crack a smile, with her little nose crinkled, I noticed how many teeth she’s missing. Almost all of her top teeth have rotted away, a painful reminder of the hardship she’s endured in her three and a half years. I picked up a sparkly Hello Kitty toothbrush for her from 7-Eleven, and the first time I showed her how to use it, she had no idea that she was supposed to spit out the toothpaste! Now, this sweet child loves using her toothbrush. She probably asks to brush her teeth about 18 times a day.
As she learned that she can trust me, she started holding my hand and sitting on my lap every chance she got. Every time I walked in the room, she ran to me with open arms yelling “uuuum! uuuum!” begging to be picked up. She clung to me, desperate and helpless and thirsting for love. It’s the same way I run to God in my brokenness, desperate for comfort and a savior.
I learned to love through a million little actions. Love is painting each other’s nails and picking flowers to put in her hair, playing in the rain and letting her color on my Snapchats. It’s singing the ABC’s and Let it Go from Frozen. Love is chopping her apple into teeny tiny bits so she can manage to eat solid food, even with her missing teeth. It’s is holding her tight and soothing her whimpering cries and kissing her on the forehead.
She longs for love, and is so eager to give it. This girl is the most generous three and a half year old I’ve ever met. Without being asked, she shares her food and her few toys with the other kids at the ministry. Her idea of playing is sweeping the floor, cleaning and doing other chores. One of the first mornings I was at our ministry, I walked in to find her chopping garlic with a dull kitchen knife. She was so excited to show me.
She sees beauty in everything. She calls everyone and everything “swy,” (“beautiful.”) We played outside together every afternoon, and one day she picked up a clump of dirt and weeds and showed it to me, pointing at it and saying “Swy! Look how beautiful!”
When she cries, it’s not the cry of a typical three and a half year old. She cries like an adult. She never has temper tantrums or gets upset when she doesn’t get her way. Her cries are soft and whimpering, with silent tears rolling down her face as her tiny little frame trembles.
She is fiercely protective of her big brother. Her brother is a loving, energetic six year old. He has autism, and is gentle natured and full of joy. She almost never leaves his side. When all of the children play together, she makes sure the other kids are treating him nicely. Every time her brother sees a caterpillar (he hates caterpillars) he calls for his little sister to come help, and she runs over and happily scoops it up with a leaf and moves it out of his way.
She loves teaching me Thai by pointing to things in her coloring book and laughing when I totally butcher the pronunciation. And being the smart little thing she is, she started picking up on some basic English phrases as she overheard me saying them. She loves to make silly faces in the mirror. She loves blowing kisses and splashing in puddles after it rains. She loves jumping on the bed and falling asleep in my arms.
She just longs to be loved, and showing her that love is the sweetest gift.
I watched her come to life as I found new ways to show her how loved she is. Her face started to look rounder, the circles under her eyes started to fade, and she started to get more color in her cheeks. I watched as she started to act like a child again, giggling and playing with the other kids instead of standing solemnly by herself.
While she began to come to life physically and emotionally, I could feel myself coming alive spiritually. I was reminded that I’m not made for this world, that nothing on earth could ever satisfy my thirst for the eternal. I found my purpose when I allowed God to break my heart for the suffering of this world. As I walked into dark places, I felt this deep, electrifying strength within me. It was definitely not my own strength, and there is no other explanation except that it was from God.
Living in Thailand and doing the work I was doing wasn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination, but it was deeply fulfilling. Here’s an excerpt from a note I scribbled after visiting the hospital (I had a throat infection because of the smog) at the end of my first week.
“The air was hot and heavy as I sat in the back of a cab on the way home from the hospital. We’re only 5 days into our trip and I feel like I’m suffocating, both physically and mentally. During the whole ride back to our base, I fantasized about going back home. Oh, how I long for the comforts of my own house, for my mom's hug.
Our driver made a sharp u turn and I started to feel dizzy. I was dehydrated, hungry, emotionally drained and helpless in a country where I don't understand anything. My fantasies turned into viable options in my head and I made a mental checklist of things to do when I got back to our base. I would look up flights back to the U.S., and check my bank account and see how I could budget my money to buy and early return ticket.
I was lost in my thoughts when my teammate broke the silence with "You seem to really be getting through to her," referring to one of the kids who lives at our ministry, a little girl who has experienced unimaginable hardship. It took months for anyone to get her to speak when she first moved to our ministry a year ago. For this precious little girl to feel comfortable around me is a huge deal. With just a few words, my teammate reminded me why I am here in the first place, to plant seeds of hope and show hurting people that they are loved.”
There were parts of my trip that were almost unbearably difficult. Almost. But it’s the sweetest gift to be part of these kids’ lives, to support them and show them how loved they are.
To tell this precious girl she’s beautiful and smart. To paint each other’s nails, to sing the ABC’s and play in the dirt together. To hear the sound of her saying my name, “Lra-e-wul” through her toothless smile. To hold her in my arms, her head resting on my chest, and feel her breathing growing heavier as she drifts to sleep.
To play tag with her big brother and tell him I love him, to pick him up and spin him around (even though he is way too heavy to be picked up!) To play dinosaurs with him and give him high five’s and let him sit on my lap while we read.
I’m reminded that Jesus healed people one at a time and connected with humanity on a personal level. I can’t eliminate poverty and rescue every child who needs rescuing. But I can show a three and a half year old girl that she is smart and beautiful and loved. I can walk into dark places and love people deeply, and that is the greatest gift. It’s what I was created to do.
In today’s post, I’m sharing some of the not-so-glamorous, behind the scenes moments of my recent trip to Bangkok. I had the time of my life in Thailand. I played with baby elephants, explored ornate ancient temples, and swam in the bluest water I’ve ever seen. I met some incredible women at my partner organization and left a piece of my heart with the sweet kids there.
But I would be lying if I said my said my journey was easy. If I’m being completely honest, I struggled daily missing home, missing things I used to take for granted. I missed my family. I missed having air conditioning. I missed having personal space. I shared a small room not only with three teammates, but lots of little critters, as well. I woke up to a dozen new bug bites each morning. I constantly felt sticky from the humidity and my throat hurt from the smog.
I had vivid nightmares that left me exhausted in the morning and lingered in my mind throughout the day. I saw things that broke my heart. There were moments I felt completely helpless and broken. I was reminded that not all stories have happy endings and this world is full of pain and suffering.
I walked into some dark places and experienced things that make it difficult to carry on with everyday life.
What am I supposed to do after meeting a young girl trafficked from Russia, trapped in a cage and forced to dance for customers? After seeing hotels where women are stored in the basement, while men sit around and negotiate their prices? The prices of other people’s lives?
How can I continue with life as usual after meeting a 6-year-old girl selling roses on the street in a red light district, wearing tattered rags and seeing things no kid should ever have to see? What do I do with the knowledge that Cambodian orphans are sold into sex slavery? That 12 year old boys are for sale? That women are transported from Africa and Russia in shipping containers to be sold to traffickers, some suffocating on the months-long voyage?
I’ve seen kids being used as bait, women and men being treated like cattle and sold like commodities, and met reckless tourists who tell me that watching a strip show in the red light district is “harmless fun.”
On a large scale, it seems hopeless. How much of a difference can I really make? I can’t arrest traffickers and close down brothels and rescue every person in the sex trade. I can’t save every child from the horrors of sex slavery. I can’t change the world.
But I can let God work through me to change one person’s story. I can show one woman, for the first time, that she is worthy and loved. I can pray for one young man forced into prostitution. I can plant a seed of hope in a child facing impossible circumstances. I can change someone’s life story, and that makes it all worth it. It's the most fulfilling feeling in the world. There’s beauty in the struggle.
I hope this post inspires you to think about what breaks your heart, what captures your attention, and challenges you to go out and change the world for one person, or a few people, to inspire someone else and create a ripple effect.
Thanks for stopping by. A little about me — I have a latte each morning and drink about 7 cups of tea a day (I'm not exaggerating.) I live in Atlanta where I'm going to law school. I like long distance running and I love my city and I love exploring our beautiful earth. I believe in being vulnerable, following our passions & being free.
I started this blog to document and share my favorite moments while traveling. This is a place where I process my ideas, share the aches and joys of my heart, speak truth, and shine light on the beauty I see in the world.
I've realized that what I probably love most about traveling is the same thing I love about writing — the way it connects me to myself and other people. I hope as you read my words, you feel connected to our shared humanity.
Thank you for reading. :)
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