• Kim

How Thailand Broke my Brain

And built it back up again.

I took a much needed break from life and went to Thailand with three other women from my city. We all said yes for one reason or another. It wasn’t until Mishara Winston of To Indy with Love spoke these words that I truly knew what I’d said yes to: “Pleasure heals trauma by showing the brain that unpredictable experiences can be safe.” So together, we created all the pleasure we could in 7 days, wrapped it in a banana leaf and shared it, unafraid.

Having just started a small business, working to grow my career in tech, and navigating change and responsibility at a non-profit, one would think the last thing I needed was to fly literally as far from home as I could go for a vacation. All of us had plenty reasons to say no— family, career, money, heath even. But we all also recognized that this was a gift we desired for ourselves.

Living briefly in a polluted city famous for its exploitative sex industry, steeped in colorism, and running on hustles and corruption certainly had its challenges. I would be a hypocrite if I ended there in describing Pattaya, since I know how much it harms when people only call out natural disasters and poverty in Haiti while ignoring the culture and rich history. I would also be missing the point. Most of our challenges came from simply being new to the country and learning how to navigate systems that had their purpose long before our privileged American passports got stamped. It is humbling that English is everywhere, and to see how systems bend for us. With all of that at play, the beauty of Thai culture and the loving kindness extended to us by Thai people is what I will remember from this trip.

Here’s what helped the scripts in my very full brain be disrupted, soothed, and rebuilt multiple times on this trip:

Pleasure was unique to each of us, unlimited and safe.

As Black femmes of varying social and sexual identities, we are used to hearing the sentiment of a No. A lot. And often it’s followed up by why we shouldn’t have what we want, or why we shouldn’t even ask. Mishara invited us to ask, enjoy, and share without judgment. At a certain point we stopped saying no to ourselves. Much more valuable than our dollars going further than most of us had ever experienced, was our abundant free time. And choice was encouraged, heavily. From sleeping in on our crisp Thai board beds to the spread of beaches, exquisite temples, colorful food, massages, and markets waiting for us, we had a practical freedom we don’t get in our every day lives. It was an exercise in listening to and asserting our own will.

For me, it’s a complete joy to walk down streets different from what I know. The thrill of uncertainty and being captivated by colorful signs, heavy smells, and the music of a new language in my mouth lights me up inside and out. Whenever I could, I chose what felt most like an adventure. And the land of smiles delivered.

Our senses and synapses were on ten.

Everyone learns and expresses joy differently, and whether you’re most activated by sight, taste, scent, touch, sound, or just vibes, Thailand is a feast. Our cooking class in Bangkok let us make fresh coconut milk with our own fingers. Receiving blessings from monks at majestic temples, meeting thriving Thai trans women studying to be doctors and artists, and sharing space with new friends from Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and other places in Asia helped restore my own enjoyment and trust in the presence of others— something I was aiming towards for this trip after feeling straight up hurt by my country and it’s people in different ways. We were often shocked and delighted, in that order. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Riding on the back of motorbikes and Tuk Tuks, dodging aggressive sales tactics, and leaping onto rocky boats in the Gulf of Thailand kept our senses heightened. The beauty and culture of two busy, ancient cities kept us amazed from start to finish.

We loved each other through every puzzle, treasure, and hurt.

There were negative experiences in Pattaya that are not my story to tell. But I had the chance to embrace, stand beside, and affirm those who were hurt in a way that made me feel strong and protected too. The hardest part for me was seeing countless - countless women and girls on the streets working in a life they clearly had not chosen and were not enjoying. That, as well, is not my own story to tell. "I can take to the Beach at night just to see, but I know you won't like it," my young German friend said. He was a cis-male, and I had not expected to see so viscerally that my safety was impacted by having him by my side. I was lucky to be so distant while witnessing up close something I could not yet understand— a sex trade that is much more vast and violent than what I've learned about in my own country. It was the only time I saw darkness in Thailand.

Even when we had a physically and mentally draining day or experience, we were all patient with each other and gentle. It taught me how to be a better caretaker of my friends and family, and let me exercise parts of myself that need attention.

We were all allowed to use our voices. Mishara did check in’s, and after awhile she didn’t have to because we were sharing instinctively and out of respect for ourselves and each other. We listened to each other. We did not negate or question. If we could make life better for one another, we chose to do that. I was shown new ways to pay attention to the well-being of those around me.

The first photo on this post of me smiling in a pink scarf was after an extremely scary solo ferry ride in the Gulf of Thailand. There was a storm in Vietnam and at one point the waves so high, all passengers were getting soaked. People screamed. Two irreverent Thai femmes behind me befriended me and made the ride tolerable, but I had to contemplate what it would feel like to be swallowed by the sea. I didn’t feel like smiling, and when my friends arrived to sit with me they had also had the same fear and seasickness and so we took much needed pause. Some of us were silent. We were allowed to not be cheerful. We were allowed to be completely exhausted at times.

That same day we also took in the ecstasy of clear jade saltwater caressing our skin and clearing our systems after the storm quickly ended on island of Koh Lan. We all relaxed into our bodies, in a way that was long overdue. The good times were made even better by this group of women who were so fully themselves with me on our shared adventure. It felt like we were collaborating on art piece, and the medium was shared experience.

We dropped out of capitalism, just a little.

Pleasure heals trauma because it shows you that unpredictable experiences can be safe.

I would also add that travel done well heals capitalism, because it makes you feel more connected to your world rather than evaluated by it.

I’ve practiced hyper vigilance to stay safe in my daily life. Most things that feel good can also hurt you. Everything in Thailand is a trap, or that’s what some would have you believe. "All the cab drivers are scammers, don’t be too friendly. All the water is contaminated, don’t drink the ice. All the solo white men vacationing or living there are pedophiles, keep your eyes down."

That type of hyper vigilance assumes danger first without proper assessment and is a typical Western, patriarchal, white supremacist, inefficient (and sad) way of being, just like a traumatized brain.

After being affirmed of our worthiness to relax into pleasure over and over again, dropping not only into feeling provided for but into the beauty of choice and of being embodied so vibrantly without peril, some of our walls began to melt. We surprised ourselves with our intrepid choices. We began to wake up and navigate a country that was not without challenges, but really started to represent such divine goodness waiting for us to unfold it.

Adrienne marie brown says that pleasure can be a measure of our freedom, in the context of the work of world-changing. If I am to delight my White Hibiscus customers regularly and seek to build a world that delights myself and others, I had better be familiar and embracing of that honey for myself. And I intend to keep practicing feeling good, saying yes, and knowing safety.

If you’ve made it this far, know that I am back stateside, and will return to your regularly scheduled handmade gifts to support education in Haiti. I’ll do so with so much gratitude to Thailand, the people I met in our short-but-full adventure, and my friends who held me as we did some cool, brave shit.

This Fall and holiday season will bring lots of fun surprises that give back to education in Haiti, by Haitians. I can't wait to tell you about our new curated gift box that's piloting and launch 2019's holiday greeting cards. The White Hibiscus blog will also continue bringing you more than just beautiful gifts that give more. I want to give you some of the other things that make life beautiful. Like travel, love, friendship, family, nature, community, and solitude.

Special thanks to To Indy With Love, Silom Cooking School, and Elephant Jungle Sanctuary.

To see more fun stuff like our Thai Snax series and video of us losing our minds at the view of Bangkok on top of a Ferris wheel, follow me on Instagram: @notfromaroundhereeh

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White Hibiscus Gifts is no longer active due to the pandemic. Ninety percent of our business took place at in-person events. We are still supporting education in Haiti on a smaller scale, and locally providing care to our Indianapolis community during this difficult time. Thank you to all of those who made in person purchases, we miss you already. Some day we'll all be together again. Til then, take care.
- Founder Kimberly Milfort
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