I heard about The Giving Lens’ (http://thegivinglens.com/) trip to Thailand on Facebook. A blip, a quick few words on my News Feed from a friend of a friend. Photography? Travel? Philanthropy? All in one trip? I was committed before I even knew the details. What I found out was that this would be TGL’s first women-only excursion, and we would be teaching photography to girls in a facility (COSA – http://www.cosasia.org) that prevented them from being sold into the sex trades, or rescued them from that torture. I was enthralled. I had never traveled anywhere in Asia, and Thailand had been number one on my dream travel list for years. I submitted my passionately-written application and hoped I would be selected to join this project.
A few months later, at the end of February, I stood in front of the Cathay Pacific check-in counter at San Francisco International Airport. It was nine o’clock at night and I was gearing up for a thirteen hour red-eye flight to Hong Kong, the first of three flights on my way to Chiang Mai, Thailand’s “Rose of the North.” I felt strange; it was nearing my bedtime, here I was in a huge airport, and I was…nervous? I love flying, but for some reason my adrenaline was elevated and I was jittery. I almost cried when hugging my parents goodbye. Almost. Despite taking two Advil PMs, I didn’t sleep much that night.
Hong Kong, five in the morning. We arrived an hour ahead of schedule! I expected the airport to be a ghost town, but instead it was buzzing with people. Though I was beyond exhausted, my lizard-brain must have been working overtime because I magically found myself in front of the Plaza Premium Lounge and enjoyed a shower that brought me back from the dead. An hour later, I discovered the second-level food court and for the first time in my life, ate pot-stickers and pork ramen for breakfast. Each and every slurped noodle was exceptional.
Bangkok Airport was stuffy and humid. I had to walk about three-quarters of a mile with my injured knee to reach my connecting flight to Chiang Mai. Other than that, an uneventful experience and by far the most relaxed customs desk I’ve ever been waved through.
The entire flight to Chiang Mai I was quasi-holding my breath because there was a very congested-sounding man sitting behind me. He talked to his friend nonstop and coughed every 30 seconds. By some miracle I didn’t catch whatever illness he harbored. I stared out the window and was greeted by brown, dry hills enveloped in a haze which looked like neither smog nor fog. I had expected tropical jungles, yet was surprised by the climate variations throughout the country.
After a pleasant taxi ride to Amora Thapae Chiang Mai, our hotel for the first night, I tumbled up the front steps and into the cool, slick lobby. I was a mess of glistening sweat and rumpled bags, tugging at my red scarf that was now turning into a steamy snake choking my neck. I paused for a moment, took a breath, listened to the staff and courtyard fountain burbling in unison, dabbed my brow, and glided over to the check-in desk with all the elegance I could muster. I smiled as much as possible and stuttered through a few hellos (“sa-wa-dee kaa”) and thank yous (“kop-kun kaa,”) my mouth fumbling over the foreign intonation. Upstairs I collapsed on the bed and logged into the hotel’s Wi-Fi to try to connect with the other ladies. I found that Wendy and Nancy were in their room. Upon entering I gave them both big hugs; because of the activity in our Facebook group, it was as though we’d already met, and I was just saying hello to old friends. We chatted for a bit, then I set my sights on the pool – the only one we’d have access to during our trip. I was hot, sticky, and my feet and ankles were swollen from 26 hours of air travel. I slid into the pool and felt all my discomfort melt away. Being able to stretch out, swim and float in the cool water was healing and heavenly.
As I was showering in my room later, I kept an ear open for a knock on the door. I knew my roommate, Anna, would be arriving soon and wanted to make sure she could get in. I was just rinsing the shampoo from my hair when I heard a knock. Dripping wet, I threw a towel on and flung open the door. Looked left, nothing. Looked right, a redhead with glasses and large suitcase in front of the room next door, staring back at me quizzically. I took too long to formulate a question and her look turned to guarded curiosity.
“…Are you…Claire?” I ventured.
“Oh! Sorry, I was waiting for Anna and I was in the shower but I wanted to make sure she could get in the room and oh sorry this is really weird…”
“I’m Amanda, hi!”
I have a lovely knack for making things uncomfortable. Though, if a half-naked lady poked her head out her door at me, I’d probably be taken aback too. After I was dressed and refreshed, Anna did arrive and I greeted her with a warm hug. I relayed the events and we laughed about awkward meetings.
We got to meet the rest of the group on our way to dinner that evening – our group leaders, Kate and Nicole, and Patti, one of the other participants. Yasmin, the last one to arrive, had suffered a flight delay and didn’t make it to dinner. As we chatted over our mango smoothies, beer, and mouth-scorching curries, I felt like we all instantly clicked. It was an entirely soul-nourishing feeling to be surrounded by eight other women, all accomplished photographers and travelers; some mothers, some wives, some single, from different backgrounds and locations, but coming together to accomplish this journey we’d begun to educate and empower the girls of COSA, while hopefully educating ourselves a little along the way.