My name is Rachel Maher and I spent eight weeks working as an art relief volunteer on the Art Relief International project under Cultural Canvas Thailand, an organisation based in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand. Below is an account of my usual day on this unforgetable journey.
I woke up each morning with the same feeling of wonder; those first few trickling beams of sunlight to reach my eyes, the lack of duvet, the net billowing around me due to the breeze of the whirring fan beside my bed; why is it sunny, why is there a net over me and why do I have a fan on? You don't need fans in Ireland, not really. And it was at that moment every morning that I remembered where I was. Not on the wild and windy West Coast of Ireland, but rather in the beautiful and enchanting city of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.
Getting up for work in the morning was far from a chore. I loved the work I was doing and eagerly awaited workshops each day. I tended to wake up a little earlier than most of my housemates. I enjoyed the little bit of time to myself while I got ready before the busy house awoke. I wasn't used to living in a house full of girls so the headspace one gained over a bowl of cornflakes and some fruit in the morning did wonders.
Conversations about the night before, the day ahead and other assorted topics were the soundtrack to our morning routines. The familiar beep of a horn outside the gate had us all on our way to an awaiting Clo in the van. We set off, air con on, manouvering our way through the maze of streets in the city, watching the traders bustling about, many a moped squeezing through the lanes of traffic.
Arriving at the office, we poured out of the van into the humid air and quickly into the office, each setting up camp in various places. I spent my office time doing different things; preparing for upcoming workshops which involved gathering materials, making examples and writing up lesson plans; assessing previous workshops I had done for what had gone well, what hadn't and writing a blog relating to the workshop. I also involved myself in other projects within the organisation during my time there. I volunteered to make postcards on behalf of Art Relief International for the 'Send Kids the World' campaign, which involves sending postcards to children with life threatening illnesses with well wishes for their birthdays on them. I assisted an organisation called FORRU, a forest restoration unit, who were seeking funding to develop robotic drones. I undertook the task to draw up sample cartoon robots for them to use in presentations to show possible investors the intentions for the use of the robots. With any free time I had outside of working on workshops, I spent it doing drawings, postcards or anything else required of me, whether it was a quick tidy or helping fellow volunteers and staff members.
On average, we had two workshops a day. We worked with an array of groups which included schools, disability services, orphanages, organisations working with victims of human trafficking, organisations working with single mothers and their children, and detention centres. As for the types of activities, we did everything from puppets to jewellery making to fine arts and drawing skills. The workshops we ran occasionally had themes, such as our Global Travellers workshop with one of the schools. While not all the workshops had a theme, I found that we learned something in every workshop, whether it be about animals, styles of art or learning something about ourselves. No matter what sort of day I was having, whether it was a good day, I was tired, or the heat was getting to be too much for me; the workshops always had a way of making me feel better. The people we engaged with and met were such incredible characters that saw beauty and the good in everything, I couldn't help but feel uplifted and inspired by them.
Work day done, we were dropped off back at the volunteer house by Clo where P'Pon had prepared a delicious feast for us all, usually traditional Thai food but occasionally some western favourties appeared as well with a Thai twist. I was quite partial to her spicy spaghetti bolognaise! We were never short of things to do in the evenings. We were only a short trip in a red truck to the city centre which had tons of bars and restaurants to occupy us, many with live music. There was an amazing jazz bar which we attended on numerous occassions. Closer to the house there were two markets across the bridge where we could go to browse clothes, art and lots of little niknaks. Massage parlours were not hard to find and there were a number of art galleries nearby. My favourite place to go was this little cafe bar on the river about five minutes walk from the volunteer house. I always felt relaxed and comfortable there, having a drink and a chat with fellow volunteers. It definitely helped me wind down after the long day and there were many laughs had. Regardless of how I spent my evening, I always got into bed looking forward to what the following day had to offer.
I learned or tried something new everyday while I was in Thailand, whether it was a new word, a new food, a new thought process or view on life, or something new about myself. I will never forget what this journey and EIL has given me. It was so much more than a volunteering exchange and I am eternally grateful.