To silence the voices in her head, Jessica Hill set off for Thailand – and has never looked back
I didn’t know where it came from; still don’t. It was just there one day, the way a craving for chocolate or crisps can sneak in without warning, and drive you nuts until you acknowledge it. “Travel!” it screamed. “Go now, while you still can!” The voice, and society, suggested there is a cut-off time in the near future where travel will no longer be allowed, and at 25 I felt the pressure.
I knew I wanted to travel and write, but I couldn’t afford to do it without working. I craved an immersive, meaningful experience. I wanted to live in a place completely foreign from my home, to take myself as far away from my comfort zone as possible, and to become a part of a new community. Teaching English abroad seemed the perfect answer, and Thailand offered five-month contracts. I figured I’d want to come back and find a ‘real job’ by then.
To be honest, I couldn’t have even pointed to Thailand on a blank map before I bought a one-way ticket there. Teaching was a challenge, owing both to my complete lack of experience and my students complete lack of desire to learn. In rural Northeast Thailand — a place so far off the beaten tourist track I was the first foreign female many of my students had ever seen — it’s hard to understand how learning a second language can be beneficial.
I’d grown up in rural America, and saw little need for my own high school Spanish classes. Plus, I can’t imagine learning English as a foreign language. With all of our rules, and exceptions to the rules, it’s amazing anyone has mastered it.
My empathy earned respect. Soon nearly the whole town knew me as ‘Teacher Jess’ and my students would often yell “teacher beautiful” as I passed them in the pathway between our rustic and rundown classrooms. They knew it made me happy to hear them speak English, and I knew which ones were being sweet and which were being silly. It never failed to make me smile.
I made friends with my co-workers, my landlord, a dress shop owner, and the owners of the coffee shops I frequented to write. I was invited to lunches and dinners and weddings and funerals. They took me to Buddhist temples galore, to ruins, to the nearby elephant village, and to the bus stop each time I went off to explore a part of their country or the nearby countries that many of them hadn’t yet had a chance to see.
Each time I returned, I would bring a local specialty from the region I’d visited, to share with my co-workers in the office,a tradition I’d learned from watching the others do it. Food is a big part of Thai Culture and it’s almost always shared.
I spent every dollar I earned teaching English on backpacking around Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. I may have returned home empty-handed, but I was richer for the experiences. And my craving only increased.
Upon arriving home after my first eight months abroad, people asked me if I’d “gotten it out of my system yet.” Still thinking that perhaps travel was something akin to sugar coursing through my bloodstream with a delayed exit, I calmly shook my head no. “I’m actually already planning my next trip,” I said. I’d wanted to leave again as soon as I’d arrived.
It’s been over six years since I bought that first ticket to Thailand, and I’ve returned several times since, plus visited many other countries around the world, often for months at a time. I’m still working on my perfect balance but I know now, as I approach 32 that, for me, that voice will never go away.
Whenever I feel too comfortable, or too settled, or too restless, I hear it again and I know it won’t be satisfied by a week or two. “Travel!” it screams. “Go now, because you’ve no reason not to.”
Sarah now helps people all over the world get started on their own teach abroad adventures, running an online TEFL agency called Teach English ESL, where, not surprisingly, my most popular programme is teaching in Thailand.
“I’ve helped hundreds of teachers move abroad to teach English,” Sarah says. “Some stay for periods shorter than mine, some for much longer, but most – if not all – return home changed.”