In the first essay in a series of travel essays written by young explorers, Rigo Lara writes about his trip to Thailand with a maturity and wisdom beyond his years.

At Matador’s launch party last year, we raised money to sponsor a young high school student from the Summer Search program on a life-changing summer trip abroad. Rigo Lara, who is the author of the following travel essay, was the recipient of that Matador Travel Scholarship. This is Rigo’s first published piece of writing and the first time he has written about his travel experience.

The author posing with a waterfall.

Where I come from, not many people can say that they have been around the world by the age of 17.

I surely never envisioned being the one that would break away from such expectations, but a plane ticket and 8,000 miles later, my perception of the world and myself, as I knew them, changed forever.

During my Sophomore year of high school I encountered Summer Search, a leadership program which awards students the opportunity to step beyond their comfort zones through a trip anywhere in the world for free.

Coming from a sheltered family and an existence limited to the corner of my street; with a dream to travel and an ambition to get away, I could not have passed such a tempting chance.

Last summer I fulfilled my dream when I embarked on my six week trip to Thailand with an organization called Where There Be Dragons.

My story begins in a crowded San Francisco airport as I say good bye to my parents for the last time. As I boarded the plane, a surge of fear and excitement crept up behind me, giving me a feeling similar to the one you get right before the plunge on a roller coaster.

I flew into LA where I met the thirteen people I would be sharing my trip with. Later that same day, we were on a flight to Bangkok. I sat there, uncomfortable at the thought of a seventeen hour long flight, oblivious to the tragedy that would befall me upon arrival.

Denied At The Border

Why does one travel, if not to be placed in challenging situations that will demand the best of you?

Why does one travel, if not to be placed in challenging situations that will demand the best of you?

When we arrived in Thailand, I couldn’t be happier. The only thing separating me from the trip of a lifetime was the immigration check point. Sadly, it was the only thing I got to experience before I was told that I had been denied entry into the country.

The problem was that I didn’t have a Visa. My leader tried to negotiate a deal, but nothing was ever reached. I felt confused and utterly useless as the situation kept spiraling from bad to worse.

The only option left was to fly back to America and solve my predicament there. Seventeen hours in and seventeen hours back, I never expected to fly that much. My only consolation was that I flew back first class.

This little detour cost me a precious week off my trip, but I would not take any of it back. I have never felt such despair in my life, but through it I discovered that even in the darkest of times the radiance of hope always comes out triumphant.

My determination and will were tested, but I never gave up. This dramatic experience only reinforced my belief that everything happens for a reason and it taught me that there is always a bright side to every story.

My bright side was that I returned to Thailand a more empowered and emboldened individual than I ever was in the beginning.

First Impressions

Many great things occurred throughout the course of my trip. So many stories, it is almost impossible to choose which ones to retell. I guess there is no better place to begin than at the beginning.

An elephant on the streets of Thailand

On my first day in Thailand an array of colors, sounds, sights, textures, and most particular of all, tastes, bombarded my senses. I remember we sat around a circle at a neighborhood park to practice our Thai and for snacks we had a delicious assortment of fried worms, ants, maggots, and other local delicacies.

I still recall the savory crunchiness of that cockroach I put in my mouth.

From there we moved on to the hardest part of the trip which was the week long trek across the mountains of northern Thailand. This was a rigorous expedition through leech infested jungles and muddy roads.

It was hard, but it gave us a look into Thailand’s rich, natural beauty and it taught me a very important lesson in humility. We had the remarkable opportunity to stay with indigenous villagers who were very kind and willing to offer their assistance.

Perhaps that’s the one thing I miss most about Thailand, the incredible generosity and warm hearts of its people.

As the trek progressed we stayed in different villages with different families, but only one stands out to me the most. It was a family composed of a dad, a mom, and an eighteen year old daughter with a little baby boy and a little girl.

In comparison to our standard of living, these people had nothing, no real material possessions. But they had each other, which is sometimes all one really needs. From this simple family I learned not to take things for granted and to cherish all my blessings, from a flushable toilet to the sacrifice and devotion of my own mother.

Ever since then, I’ve never complained about things I couldn’t have.

Traveler or Tourist

I want to emphasize a very important point. For six weeks my group and I were travelers not tourists: there is a fundamental difference.

For six weeks my group and I were travelers not tourists: there is a fundamental difference.

Being a traveler means immersing oneself in the lives of the people and their culture with an open mind. It means having a willingness to lose yourself by shedding away previous biases and stereotypes as well as having the courage to leave home where it belongs.

We took on this philosophy as we explored cities and their abundance of markets, temples, food benders, and all other kinds of attractions a Thai city can offer, from the occasional elephant to an exhilarating tuk-tuk ride. This was quite a fun and free time.

We were given money for the day and we were set loose, gallivanting as we pleased. One of the days I will never forget is when we went to a beach town and caught the most incredible sun rise I have ever seen. You see, we were constantly on the move, town-hopping if you will.

I wish I could talk about what a great time I had with my host family once we got to the home stay section of the trip or I wish I had more time to talk about the once in a lifetime experience I had living with monks during our temple stay.

I even wish I could tell you more about the crazy week we spent in hectic Bangkok where I saw the breathtaking leaning Buddha statue and got my first Thai massage. These were all highlights of my trip, but instead I want to talk about Burma.

Entering Burma

Burma is a neighboring country that is oppressed by the tyranny of a military government. It is a poor, dangerous place and we spend five days there.

Before we even entered Burma we had a presentation about the violent history of the country and some dos and don’ts. The only advice we were given was to keep our ears and eyes open but our mouths shut.

Making connections

I’ll admit I was scared, but my time in Burma opened my eyes to the reality of the world we live in. We often forget about the plight of others around the world because we are so enveloped in the comfort of our own insignificant material world.

After experiencing the thrill of Thailand and the poignancy of Burma I came back home a changed and enlighten person. I was no longer interested about what happened only around me, but was passionate about what took place all over because it was then that I realized my life’s mission to be a citizen of the world.

I was determined to spread awareness and to share the wisdom I had obtained. Of course this was all weeks after my immediate return. The first couple days were different. I got back expecting to feel out of place but surprisingly I fit right into the old routine.

I felt like it had all been a dream, just a fantasy. I really missed my friends and that joy you get when you don’t know what’s coming next because everyday is a surprise, a new adventure.

Know Yourself

That joy and so many other wonderful feelings you can only experience by taking the risk of becoming a traveler yourself.

I can only say that we live in a world in which we are inextricably bound to one another. It’s a shame if we deny our hearts and minds such an opportunity

I cannot explain to you how significant this trip was. I grew in ways I never knew I would and even to this day I keep discovering little new jewels of wisdom from my experiences in Thailand.

Perhaps the most compelling result of the trip is how well I got to know myself, an opportunity seldom obtained within the comforts of your home yet one that is imperative. Through traveling I developed this fascination with the world and the variety of peoples and cultures that inhabit it.

I will be pursuing that interest in college as I major in political science and international studies in my hopes of becoming a diplomat or something of that nature.

I can only say that we live in a world in which we are inextricably bound to one another, a world made so small by our advanced communications, yet so big in its abundance of diversity. It’s a world teeming with adventure, discovery, beauty, and life. It’s a shame if we deny our hearts and minds such an opportunity.

The world is at our finger tips, whenever the chance comes along, take it and run.

Community Connection

Because many young people lack the opportunities to travel, Mataor is raising $5,000+ to create a travel scholarship for low-income Bay Area high school students. Learn more about the Matador Travel Scholarship Fund.

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