It's Okay to Be Human

It's Okay to Be Human

Hannah Soal

The Hill Tribe Orphanage and Refugee Camp, Thailand 2013

Hannah is a full-time intern at a church working with university students. Graduated in 2020 with a degree in Theology and is now specializing in Ancient Hebrew.

All images provided by Hannah. Read her story below!

I should not have gone to Thailand in 2013. I was late in applying and could not afford it. If the rep from Rustic Pathways who came to my high school in South Africa had not encouraged me to apply, I would not have bothered.

Word to the wise, being humble and going the extra mile to appeal really can make a difference between staying or going.

Next I knew, I was offered an 18-day scholarship to go to the Hill Tribe Orphanage and Mae Ra Ma Luang refugee camp!

When I think of high school, I think of Thailand and holiday time. High school was a place of fear for me. Thailand was safety and freedom–a place to just be myself.

I loved the fact that laughter came easily, and the counsellors really went out of their way to let you know that you are doing ok. They did not know what I had come from and yet they kept encouraging us to have a good time, although we were the last group of students in the summer and they were probably tired.

I think that Thailand was one of the beginnings of me finding out who I was and what I liked. And I must admit that I really liked the mud fight in the rice patties!

Those short few days were a journey of inspiration. I got to go to a Burmese refugee camp and meet some of the happiest and inspiring people I know.

They had wild dreams about being someone incredible who will change the world, when they were stuck in a place that projected no future to them. Community and family were valued because they knew first-hand how fragile life was and how materialistic wealth can disappear in an instant.

Something as simple as belting out our over-sung South African national anthem in front of them (another girl from South Africa and I forgot most of the words, not that anyone seemed to notice) brought great applause and interest!

A realisation that it is okay to be human, started to form in my head, which was not what I had grown up with. The yearning to really treasure life (which was a moment-by-moment decision) was something that I still remember.

I despised my life because of school, and I had everything (money, food, a home, family, a chance to study further) that these people did not. This was a reality check for me, and still is.

Earlier, whilst staying at the school in a local mountain village where we were building a library, one of the program leaders invited me to church one of the mornings. I thought, ‘Why not?!’

After trekking a little way on a dirt road, we came to this tiny little house (a room actually). There were about 5-8 people (including myself and the leader) seated on red mats. The leader translated for me, and it was a beautiful time until they asked me to share and play the guitar (panic moment!!).

I had never sung and played solo in public, let alone shared something about home and taught a little from the Bible! Frozen in fear, I literally opened the Bible and read the first thing I saw.

What they said was such an encouragement to me. Little did they know that I needed to hear what I had to say more than they did.

Looking back, I remember experiencing a strange peace and boldness in that moment, and many others on that trip. I was doing things in Thailand that you could not pay me to do back home! I was confident. I was sharing my story with strangers (and loving it). I was totally okay with sounding terrible in my attempt just to say “hello”.

And over and above this, the next day whilst we were building more of the library, a woman (who was at the church the previous day) came to our site and handed an exquisitely weaved, blue-shaded Thai bag to the leader and said that it was for me! All just because I had said a few mumbled words in my fearful state and desperately tried to confidently play on the guitar!

It was a humbling moment because my cement-stained hands did not have anything to give her in return, apart from a bad-sounding “Kop-khun-kha” (‘thank you’ in Thai).

I see now that everything was used to form me. To shape me into something new, and to cause me to be more grateful. I was totally put out of my comfort zone, and Thailand was the mid-blessing of high school.

Smack bang in the middle of 5 years of schooling, as in South Africa, we do not have middle school, only elementary school (first to seventh grade) and high school (eighth to twelfth grade). Thailand was the sweet mid-point that whispered, “keep going, you’re nearly there”.

It sparked my interest in travelling (of which I have not stopped), renewed my love for food of all kinds and tastes (even if they are as strange as the ones we had to taste in Fear Factor one night), and made me fall in love with the beauty of different cultures and peoples.

At the end of the trip, I remember crying and naively asking the counsellors to burn my passport. Thankfully, they refused, but at the time it was a grand idea, anything to beat going back to hell.

Although I had to return to high school, it did get better, and I see that I needed to experience it all. Now, I have a good Thai friend that works among the Karen people (which I had volunteered with). I would not be her friend if she had not seen me with my Thai bag one afternoon in South Africa.

Learn more about Rustic Pathways programs in Thailand, or view more Alumni Stories here