Sawadeeka USAC explorers! Currently, Minnesota is under quarantine due to the COVID-19 outbreak and it has been over five months since I have returned from my study abroad trip in Chiang Mai, Thailand. During this stressful time of being away from friends and family, I can’t help but to feel a sense of loneliness and despair as we practice social distancing. If isolation has taught me anything, it’s how much we take for granted our social interactions and institutions on a daily basis. For instance, normally I’d be writing to you at my nearest Caribou coffee shop, with a pen in one hand and a hot turtle mocha in the next. However, I write to you snuggled up on the couch cuddled next to Thor (my brother’s cat), reminiscing about what life was like in Chiang Mai and moments where I felt the most unity and content being surrounded by close and benevolent friends.
Freshman Walk to Doi Suthep
As cheesy as this sounds, I remember this experience so vividly as if it happened yesterday. The Freshman Walk to Doi Suthep is an ongoing CMU tradition that I decided to partake in. It was Saturday, September 14th. I was awake by 4:30am, anxiety trickling through my body as I doubt my physical ability to handle what I was about to endure in the coming hours. At around 5:30am, myself and a handful of other USACers, Thai buddies, and over 1,000 CMU students gathered at the front of the CMU gate as we began our walk. The best part of the walk was that it was not about who or which class would make it to the top first (allow that did encourage some to go faster than others!). Rather, we walked together as a means of sharing our gratitude and joy for attending CMU, encouraging each other to stride on no matter how physically tired we were. I remember having various conversations with CMU students and alumni of whom I’ve never met before, but connected instantaneously through the moments we were sharing together. When I finally made it to the top of Doi Suthep, I was met with an abundance of “You made it!” and “Good job,” along with the most glorious overview of the city. Although my body was physically drained after walking seven kilometers on an incline, my spirit was bursting with energy as all of CMU gathered at the top of Doi Suthep, content with our ability to push ourselves in times of hardships.
Watching the Sunrise at Khun Pouay
As someone who has never been a morning person and never interested in sunrises, I can confidently say that changed after my very first sunrise at the Karen village of Khun Pouay. It was November 3rd. The day before our crew had spent 10+ hours trekking through various Hilltribe villages, rice fields, and waterfalls. Needless to say, I was exhausted and had planned to sleep in until 8am that morning, which was our scheduled time to awake. However, I awoke at 6:20am and noticed my bed mates were gone. When I opened the tent, I was immediately captivated. It is not an understatement to say that I have never seen such a beautiful scenery in my life. The sun was delightfully shining among the grass and rice fields, perfectly illuminating the figures of each tree surrounding the village. Myself and around 20 other individuals continued staring as the sun was ascending, not making a single sound. This was the most tranquil moment I had experienced while being abroad. The fact that I could share these similar feelings with such astounding individuals makes it even more memorable.
Farewell Dinner Along Suthep
It was December 12th, exactly one day before the program would end and I would fly back to the states. My emotions were at an all time high. I remember being in denial for most of the day to the point where I refused to even start packing! But then came the farewell dinner. It was around 8pm when we first arrived at this beautiful outdoor diner, with a beautifully illuminated walkway situated next to a pond. Once we had a moment to take in the scenery, we all lined up in front of the table serving food. Was I sobbing in line like a baby? NO!… Well, okay, yes I was, but needless to say, the moment finally sank in. This was the final night I was ever going to see of whom I’ve grown so fond of. I would soon have to depart from Chiang Mai, which has become my home, in a matter of hours. As we all came to this realization, we all decided to huddle by the fire and began to sing “Lean On Me” by Bill Withers, standing side by side, a majority of us holding hands and all of us swaying together. We definitely looked like we were in the final scene of a musical. Later on after taking our final group photo, the Thai Language professor Topong began chanting the phrase “Dee Jai Jung,” which has the same meaning and spirit as “Hip Hip Hooray!” So like any group consisting of 75 college students, we all started chanting, jumping up and down screaming “Dee Jai Jung” for over five minutes, with nothing but laughter and hugs that followed. The moment was truly bitter sweet.
As I continue to ponder through these memories that have impacted my life in such transformative ways, I advise current USACers who were pulled early from their programs to do the same. Whether you were abroad for a month or four months, every second of your experience – whether moments of happiness or sadness – are yours to hold on to forever and are there to shine light and hope upon times of darkness.
Samantha Raghu attends Gustavus Adolphus College and is an alumna of the USAC Chiang Mai program.