Written by Shaun Swartz
Welcome back to “The Focal Point.”
If you’re new around here- we’re sharing stories from our humanitarian trips abroad that moved us and left us wanting to plan the next journey. Be sure to check out last week’s entry to read about the “Living Forests of Costa Rica.”
This week’s entry comes to us from world-traveler and all around adventure woman, Keeley Rideout. Keeley spends her winter months working as a Ski Patroller, which, coincidentally enough, is exactly how her experience with GoBeyond in the Klong Toey slum came rushing back. Enjoy!
The other day I rode a chairlift up the mountain with a teenager who grew up in Bangkok. He was Thai and attended an international school before moving to the US a few years ago. After chatting for a few minutes, I asked him if he knew the Klong Toey slum. A moment passed until he said, “Everybody knows Klong Toey.” The Klong Toey slum has a population of over 80,000 people who, on average, live off of less than $5 USD; It’s one of the oldest slums in Bangkok.
Immediately my mind flashed back to my experience during a GoBeyond Thailand humanitarian trip abroad in 2016. After spending an afternoon of silliness, games, and teaching English at a kindergarten in Klong Toey, we got to walk one little fellow home and hear his family’s story. We followed him down flooding alleys lined with stray dogs and leapt out of the way as motorcycles zipped through the narrow maze of streets. A few of us piled into their shack while the rest of us lingered in the doorway. It was hard to imagine what sleeping arrangement were like as our knees knocked and we folded ourselves into any available space – the tiny home filled with extended family and their few worldly possessions.
We brought a bag of rice and some cooking oil as a token of our appreciation for welcoming us into their home. Our companion nestled into his mom’s arms as she explained the daily challenges of making ends meet in the slum. Her greatest concern was whether or not her son would be able to continue schooling after kindergarten. Even though school is free in Thailand, the costs of school supplies are an immense burden for people who work so hard yet earn so little. Many of the kids in the slum rely on scholarships to fund their education.
School is a safe place, a good place. There is a frenzied buzz of excitement as jovial students bound up and down the hallways during breaks; things get serious, however, when you go home – a shift that was immediately noticeable in the young boy. Upon arriving home, he went from being a sweet goofball to a much more reserved and task-oriented 5 year old. He set his backpack down then dashed off to fetch drinking water before settling in to be a part of the conversation.
As the chairlift deposited us atop the mountain and we parted ways, the smells, the conversations, and the emotions from the slum all came rushing back. This short visit to Klong Toey, this moment of shared space and time during an unforgettable humanitarian trip abroad, held so much meaning for me. Allowing a bunch of strangers into your home to share your most intimate challenges and struggles is a daunting prospect, yet this woman did so with both grace and ease in her eagerness to connect with us, all for the sake of helping us understand life in Klong Toey a little better – qualities that will stay with me for the rest of my life.