I’ve spent a lot of time with her over the last six years and a lot has changed. I recall quite vividly stepping off the plane in Ubon Ratchatani for the first time back in 2010, with many of the Thai’s looking at me as though I must have boarded the wrong flight. "Why on earth would he be travelling to Ubon" you could see them asking each other. People talk about the Isaan Region as the “real” Thailand. The contradiction between where I found myself and the streets of Phuket, Bangkok or Khao Lak could not be more stark.
Driving out to Yasothon, it reminded me of my days as a crime scene examiner when I worked in northern New South Wales and would drive hundreds of kilometres in between jobs collecting forensic evidence. The similarities were the open fields tendered by farmers. The difference was here in Thailand they were growing rice. In Moree, Narrabri and Wee Waa, it was cotton, cattle and sheep.
Mae Thiew met me with the smile that Thailand is known for and I was welcomed into her home. Baan Home Hug wasn’t the busy, bright and colourful home that I knew Baan Tharn Namchai to be. It was different. There were kids around, they were happy and playful with one another, but they too were different from the kids from down south at BTN.
That first day I spent with Mae Thiew I learnt a number of things. The first thing was about trust. I didn’t have it with Mae Thiew and it would certainly take some time to build it. Whatever credibility I might have had for the work I had done over the previous five years in Thailand didn’t count for a lot in Mae Thiew’s eyes, I needed to build that credibility again and it wouldn’t come in the form of bricks and mortar. The final and important lesson I learnt and it might not have been on that first visit, was that if you wanted the real answer to a question from Mae Thiew, you need to ask it three times.
“Mae Thiew” I would ask “What do you and the children need?” “We need love” she would reply. “Yes I know that but, in addition to our love what else do you need” she would repeat “We just need love” as she would smile that smile of hers that makes you feel safe, loved and in a happy place. “Yes" I would repeat for the second time, "but what else do you need, apart from our love?” and on the third occasion she would respond with “Well if you come over here with me, we need new water storage, the roof of this home needs to be repaired and the bus is due for an update”.
After the third time, I would get the shopping list of jobs that needed to be done. It's no different when you ask after her health. In 2010, that first year I met her, I said goodbye to her a number of times. Not just because I was leaving her home, but because I felt the cancer she was battling would win out and it may very well be the last time I saw her. I have seen her shuffle around her home with the aid of a walking stick and I have seen her climb mountains on her bike as she rides 1600km in the Hands bike rides. Asking of her health “How are you feeling Mae Thiew?” “I am strong” as she raises both her arms like Popeye. “Yes I know you're strong Mae Thiew, but how are you feeling” “I am strong” Third time, “How are you really?” “I am not so good, my stomach is bad today.” And that was as much as you get from her as she deals with this terminal illness.
The trust that wasn’t there in 2010, it’s well and truly there now. I still have to ask a number of questions three times, I just do it in rapid succession so we can skip to the third answer. Mae Thiew shares more now and it’s on the back of that trust.
I have learnt more from what this remarkable woman does and what she says, than any other individual. You don’t need to ask her questions to learn. Sitting and watching her is a lesson in life. A lesson in humility, compassion and love on a level few understand or enjoy. I attribute more changes in my life over the last six years to her, than any other person I have walked beside on this journey. Her resilience, tolerance and devote loyalty are without doubt lessons we can all learn from.
I’ll be back with her and the kids in a couple of weeks, on my own, and no doubt will leave with more lessons in life. In July I am taking a small group up there and we will spend a couple of days with her learning and sharing in her life and stories. If you're ready for this type of experience, the type that changes your life and you would like to join me in July you are most welcome. The next Social Venture Program runs from the 24th of July until the 30th of July.