02.03.2016 - 06.03.2016
You can continue reading my letters following the link below!
See you there
“Happy Healing Home: This is a place to learn and experience Lanna-culture, Buddhism and old knowledge that is close to be forgotten…
... In daily life the volunteers can learn about organic gardening, taking care the animals (chicken, pigs, buffalos, fish, etc.) and plants, building with natural materials, Lanna-cooking and Lanna-culture.”
We read these words months before even leaving Scotland. Work in a rural smallholding while receiving life lessons from a man who has spent 16 years as a monk in a monastery. What more could you want! Definitely one of the hosts we are most looking forward to meeting. Surely all our questions on Buddhism and the life of a Monk will finally be answered. Okay, so we have to pay 200 Baht a day (£4) but this includes accommodation, 3 meals and 24hour learning so we have no qualms with coughing up the money. It still works out cheaper than if we were to be freely roaming around the country and after one week relaxing in the beautiful Chiang Mai, we are both feeling more than ready to leave behind the cushy city life. The old town, a walled square, is filled with historic temples but it us also teeming with tourists. Quite a shock after our month in the school. Travel agencies litter the streets, giant posters advertise elephant riding and the controversial visits to the hill-tribes. Naturally we would love to see both but not knowing how reputable the companies are we decide to wait until we have researched a little more. Strolling the streets of Chiang Mai we are overwhelmed by signs in English advertising Happy-Hour, burritos, pizzas and burgers. It has not been quite long enough for us to feel the need to eat western food quite yet so we spend most of our time seeking out and devouring Thai food. Chiang Mai does not disappoint. I personally revel in the fact that I am now one of many western women in the city and finally release my shoulders to the elements.
Before coming here I had read that Thai people were conservative and to me that meant: wear a decent length skirt, minimise cleavage, etc. It had not occurred to me that my shoulders would now be viewed as the sexiest part of my body. Of course when entering a temple I naturally cover myself but this view stems out with the temple into normal life for most Thai women. In Bangkok you would never notice, it being such a cosmopolitan city, but this changes the second we enter rural Thailand. For the first time in my life, I become extremely self-conscious of my shoulders.
Thais will never tell you you are offending them, they are far too polite. They have no issue, however, in staring. When you can feel the heat of (what feels like) a thousand eyes boring into your naked flesh you quickly learn to adapt. What really surprises me, though, is it seems to be acceptable to wear the tiniest of shorts, so long as you have your shoulders hidden. The total opposite of where I come from. Basically, when they see a girl walking down the street with a sleeveless top on, it is the equivalent of us seeing a girl walking down the street with a teeny, tiny mini skirt on. This goes for swimming too. I have packed 3 bikinis but so far I have been asked to wear both shorts and t-shirt while swimming in waterfalls and swimming pools with local people (this is not at all the case in major tourist areas). I curse myself for not having researched this properly before coming out here, leaving behind my denim shorts in favour of long skirts while abandoning my long sleeved tops for sleeveless. Luckily this is the land of cheap clothes so a delightful stroll through the night bazaar of Chiang Mai is able to solve my dilemma. Although the majority of the Thai women in Chiang Mai also cover their shoulders they seem completely desensitised to the fashion sense of western woman, having been brought up with hordes of us milling around the city. So, even though I detest to potentially offend any locals, I liberate my shoulders and allow them to finally see some sun, knowing that this kind of behaviour is only going to be acceptable in areas where the locals are accustomed to western tourists. Right… enough shoulder chat! Let me get back to the story.
So we have been in Chiang Mai for a week. Returning to the modern world of hot showers and western toilets after our month in the countryside. Despite the fact that Chiang Mai is known as the “Rose of the North” (which in rustic beauty it absolutely is) it is not long before we grow tired of being seen as rich westerners looking only to spend, spend, spend. Tuctuc and songtaews incessantly honk at us to the point of irritation and walking around the old town you quickly get the feeling that this part of the city has lost part of its former magic to be transformed into a Thai-Disneyland for Western and Chinese tourists. Filled with souvenirs and clothes that have a Thai feel but have clearly been made with nothing more than tourists in mind. I am not, unfortunately, immune to tourist-desires. I, like any one in this city, see and want most things. Compared to home everything is ridiculously cheap but we are not here for a holiday thus have a tight budget and literally no space in our luggage. Besides, we still have so many more countries to visit! Time to escape the City of Desire. Two weeks lost in the mountains sounds like paradise.
Turns out we are not the only ones with this idea. The tiny, yellow bus to the Happy Healing Home (HHH) contains four backpackers from Poland whom we quickly befriend. They too share similar thoughts on Chiang Mai and are excited to be leaving the city. The three hours to the HHH are spent swapping stories and tips for future travels in Thailand as well as covering all worldly aspects: religion, sports, music, politics, global-warming, and life goals. Pleased to have found like-minded people D and the Polish begin talking about the destination that awaits us at the end of the journey. What kind of gardening will we be doing in this season? Will there be many other volunteers there? The Polish heard about the HHH through an Austrian they met travelling and were told the food was amazing. All of us are dying to meet the host, Jim. I try to join in but by this point I am beyond listening. My old friend travel-sickness has arrived and opening my mouth may induce a bus full of vomit covered Poles. Not the best way to charm new friends. I concentrate on the road and pray we arrive soon.
As we ascend into the mountains the bus twists and turns throwing us from one side to the other. The scenery is absolutely breathtaking. Great mountains covered in waves of dense forest, comprising of a mix of gigantic bamboo and tropical vines coiling around thick trunks of tall deciduous trees. Their leaves turning different shades of yellow and red as we enter deeper into the blistering dry season. It may not have rained in months but I am blown away by how green everything is, unable to even imagine the strength the green would be were it the rainy season! When my churned stomach can really take no more the bus comes to a stop in what I can only describe as the-middle-of-nowhere. The bus driver starts unloading our backpacks from the top of the bus before dumping them on the ground and driving off. Looking around at our surroundings we see that we are on a road bordered with garlic fields and the remains of paddy fields. A dusty trail stems from the road and leads upwards before veering left round a giant, rocky boulder. Assuming that this must be the track to the HHH we heave our bags on before excitedly starting along the earthy path, sure that surges of both happiness and healing will hit us in less than a few minutes.
What does hit us are the prefect ingredients for a happy healing experience. The HHH is swarming with chickens, chicks, and virile cockerels. There are about ten bamboo huts scattered around the edge of the land built by, and now housing volunteers. In the centre of it all, a dry garden (that would probably contain an abundance of veggies were the rain here) with papaya and banana trees sprouting haphazardly here and there. I make the acquaintance of one over friendly pig, an adorable mama and baby buffalo as well as two little ginger KITTENS! A large, open wooden structure acts as a communal area where volunteers hang-out during free time, prepare and eat dinner and where a bamboo library is being built. There are outdoor toilets and showers (back to cold showers for us) and one wonderful invention includes a coconut shell with drilled holes over a high tap to aid the water to fall in a shower like manner. Luxury! The HHH is not immaculately spotless, but the dirt that is present is of the natural, unavoidable kind. Just exactly what you would expect of a place living so close to nature. I am actually surprised by how well the place is kept; uncluttered and orderly. For the first time in Thailand we see that there is a recycling system in place. Waste is organised and reused if possible and water never wasted, but always given to the plants or animals once we have finished with it. There is even compost! We use barely no electricity, everything is cooked outdoors on an open fire and we rise and fall with the sun, making the need for light (other than a personal torch) completely unnecessary. So yes, all the perfect ingredients for a happy stay except we are unable to shake off the feeling that there is something terribly important missing in this recipe.
Individual experiences of the exact same place will always yield completely different results. Many variables can drastically change one person's view over another’s. For me, first impressions are one of the most important factors in any new situation. I once read that we subconsciously decide our first impressions of a new place or person within seven seconds of meeting them. We then spend the rest of our time mentally finding evidence to support our already established view. I have no idea wether there is any firm truth in this statement but after having read it I I have begun to notice that, for me anyway, it is not that far off. While I will always try and see things impartially my first impression of anything will weigh heavily on my finally decision, sometimes proving almost impossible to change once I have settled. The HHH was to be of no exception. As we enter the smallholding with our new Polish friends we are “greeted” with apathetic glances from the other volunteers who are lounging around the common area. We smile broadly with a cheerful “Hello!”. Some people reply, but nobody bothers to get up and truly acknowledge us. Okay, we think, it is the hottest part of the day and these people have probably been working hard all morning. Not really sure what to do with our bags we put them down out of the way and take a seat on one of the benches that line the long, low, wooden dinner table. There is an eerie silence between the other volunteers which causes us newbies to whisper to each other lest we break the peace. More volunteers come and go, some introduce themselves. We jump at the chance for human contact in this suddenly peculiar environment but we do not get much further than names and countries of origin. Eventually a German guy comes over to greet us and hands us a book to read, emphasising the importance of reading it through before settling in.
We carefully read through the handwritten pages. It has clearly been made by former volunteers and opens with “Welcome Pinaan”. Pinaan is how we should now refer to each other at the HHH. Our host is Pinaan Jim, I am now Pinaan Charlotte. I am still not entirely sure of the exact meaning of the word but from what I gather it means something like I-acknowledge-you-as-a-fellow-human-being. The rest of the book outlines the HHH project itself, things to do here, past big projects conducted by the volunteers, tips on what to do to help out around the home and unfinished projects left by volunteers who left before terminating. We read comments from past visitors who talk about their wonderful time spent here and our confidence is restored. It is insisted we pay very close attention to one particular page of the book: Happy Healing Home rules. These include things such as: always being kind towards each other, no drugs and no alcohol. No use of vulgar language which is then oddly followed by what I think is meant to say “no sexual relations between volunteers”, but actually says ”No fucking your brothers or sisters”. No talking about home, past, family, travelling or just talking in general as it is a mindful home and these kinds of conversations are poisonous to anyone trying to be mindful. Suddenly the lack of acknowledgment and chat from the other volunteers starts to make sense. They are not trying to be rude, they are all just following this page of rules.
While I am most certainly here to learn, and my intentions do not include messing with the already set dynamics of the group, I would disagree to which the extent of the no talking rule exists. Especially in a place that “welcomes” new volunteers every single day. Mindful is being present in the moment. I do not believe that that includes ignoring those around you. It does not take much to make eye-contact, acknowledge and smile at people who clearly look uncomfortable. Especially when the likelihood is that they too felt exactly like us not even a week before. All around the settled volunteers go about their chores, chopping wood, constructing things, cooking, washing-up and we awkwardly sit there lost and confused. When we ask around at what we can do to help we are given a general response of “anything you like”. Not the most helpful answer. It seems that nobody wants the task of helping the new people settle in. We wonder around, searching for a job that needs little instruction, determined to help out lest we be considered idle. Not easy when you are new and have absolutely no clue as to what needs to be or can be done. Pinaan Jim, the famous host, eventually appears seeking out each new-comer, asking our names and where we are from. He is a short man in his early-fifties with shoulder length greying hair tied back with a green scrunchy. As he shakes our hands his deep, basset hound eyes meet ours and I feel relieved that finally the host himself will give us some sort of guidance. Alas, we receive no more interaction from Pinaan Jim until maybe a few hours later when it seems deemed a correct time for us to be shown our wooden huts.
As dinner time approaches, vegetables are chopped, the table wiped down and set. We take a back seat and watch the operation, preferring not to get in the way. We see that each setting has a bowl and spoon. Piles of food are placed on banana leaves and in bowls down the middle of the table, four people to each “mountain”. This is what the layout of food is called. In silence we sit down in front of a bowl and spoon and finally a hushed voice by my ear explains the table etiquette of the HHH. That we should help ourselves to the food with our right hand, spooning what we want into our bowls but never moving the mountains closer to ourselves (as we would in the West). Such a gesture implies ownership of the bowl and the idea is that everything we have here we share. I quietly respond with a “Thank you for telling us”, genuinely pleased at this considerate gesture. My last wish is to unknowingly break any more rules. The owner of the voice, a tall, tattooed Austrian, stands and begins digging around in a large container that holds a massive quantity of sticky rice. He makes a ball of it in his hands, passes it down the line of seated volunteers until it reaches the last 4 people who place the ball of rice in the empty bowl that forms part of the 'mountain range' in the middle of them. This continues until the whole table has rice, at which point Pinaan Jim addresses the table:
“All lovely Pinaan,
Please go to the mountain and eat a lot .
Have a long life.
We reply with a mumbled “Namaste” and dig in. The food is delicious! So many strong and unidentifiable flavours. I taste vegetables cooked in ways I had never experienced and the sticky rice is by ar the best we have tried in Thailand. The ever present silence still hangs over the group as the food is quickly devoured. The table disperses and some volunteers begin to do the washing-up while others roll an after dinner cigarette. The rest move off to the common area to read, relax and talk. We try to help clear up but it becomes evident that our lack of knowledge as to where things go makes us slow and useless. Anyway, we are around 17 volunteers so there really are too many cooks. We collect our books and join those in the common area.
By this point I have given up on trying to make one-ended conversations with the others, concluding that they are shy and deciding that tomorrow we will all be more familiar with each other. I settle into a corner, my back leaning against the newly constructed bamboo wall, kitten curled up on my lap, and begin reading. I try hard to concentrate on the pages in front of me but my mind wonders constantly to what tomorrow will have in store. That all too familiar tummy-turning feeling of the unknown weighs heavily in the pit of my stomach. The feeling that I always know will be banished within 24 hours but that still appears, without fail, each time I change my surroundings. By 9pm we are curled up inside our patched-up mosquito net (duct-tape is one of the most useful items we have packed), feeling well protected from the noisy, nocturnal life that lies on the other side. Although day one can only be described as strange we recognise that acclimatising here may take a few days, we are willing to give it a chance. We have planned two weeks here, and if we are unable to break a smile from the current volunteers at least we have our new friends, the four Polish travellers.
The next day begins with a rude awakening (4am) from a very croaky cockerel roosting in a tree right above our hut. For the first time, since our arrival in Bangkok, we feel cold. We curl up deeper into our nest falling in and out of sleep until the ensemble of cockerels becomes too loud to ignore. We have not been told what time we are expected to meet, nor where so we decide to get up just before daybreak and head to the common area. Some volunteers are already up, wrapped in scarves and blankets. Pinaan Jim is there too, sporting a wooly hat and tracksuit bottoms under his shorts. A large pot of coffee brews invitingly on the open fire and we haul our sleepy bodies towards the promise of caffeine. The sky begins to brighten and the trees lining the top of the surrounding mountains look ghost-like in the morning haze. A few volunteers have moved to an open area and begun to stretch. We sit and watch with our coffees, unsure if we are meant to join in or if this is a personal activity. A trickle of the early risers join them until almost everyone is silently, free-styling their yoga moves in what I can now see is clearly a routine activity. Awaiting no invitation or explanation we join the exercise and it is not long before Pinaan Jim is there too, leading the class. He is by far one of the bendiest 50-something year old man I have ever encountered. Able to fold his head to his knees and put his legs behind his head he announces that, “You cannot possibly learn to control the mind if you cannot control the body”. Once I get over my discomfort of looking like a complete idiot I allow myself to become absorbed in the stretching. My cold, stiff body soon warms up. This is absolutely one of the best ways to wake up, and soon becomes my favourite pat of the day here at the HHH. The stretching is followed by walking meditation to the temple, more yoga then sitting meditation. The periods in which we meditate are short and manageable for newbies like us but not much is explained in the way of technique so, although sitting quietly listening to nature is calming, I am not entirely sure what I am meant to be doing. Once our body and mind training is complete we head back home for some well earned breakfast, after which Pinaan Jim announces that we must all head to the neighbouring garlic field to help the Thai workers harvest the garlic.
From what I understand the HHH’s Buffalo had escaped her leash the day before, deciding that the best way to spend her freedom was by eating and trampling the garlic in the neighbouring field. As an apology, or as a way to avoid paying any fines, Pinaan Jim has promised the owner of the land help in the form of a dozen volunteers to assist in harvesting the crop. I do not mind at all. At least this way I know exactly what my task is and can feel like I am pulling my weight in the group 100 percent. The work is not too tasking. Pull the garlic out, without breaking the stalk and leaving the head in the earth (harder than it sounds) and pilling it up ready to be collected. We work alongside a group of Thai workers who delight at the unusual western company. The sun beats down on us and we are encouraged to take regular water breaks. I can feel my mood lift with the morning dew, enjoying the repetitive work and even beginning to converse with some of the other volunteers. The delectable smell of garlic drifts into my nostrils and above our heads around a hundred dragonflies pirouette through the air. I realise that this exquisite display is due to the fact that we are destroying their home but there is little time to ponder this thought. Soon I am back on my hands and knees ripping garlic from the ground.
My ears prick up when I overhear a group speaking French beside me. So far I have not conversed long enough with anyone to reveal that I too speak French and I am about to join in when what they are saying causes me to halt.
“Did you know that the Polish group have gone?”
“What? Gone? All of them! When? How?”
“There is only one bus a day, at 6am and they were here at breakfast?”
“I don’t know but they’re gone.”
“I’m not really that surprised,” a girl replies with a sneer, “I could tell they weren’t going to last. You know, they’re are certain rules here and they seemed pretty lazy to me.”
Which generates the reply of, “Oh, I didn’t really know them.” This particular volunteer refusing to bite the ‘let’s gossip’ bait, a move I greatly respect but it is too late. The damage is done. My good mood bursts to be replaced with anger. How could these people be so mean? They have made no effort to speak to the Polish. If they had they would know that their visa runs out in a week and they only ever intended to stay a few days. How could they possibly think that they were lazy when they have spent less than 24hours in their company? Perhaps they did not throw themselves into the afternoon’s work the previous day because, just like us, everybody was so vague about the whole thing! I am sickened by the high school mentality that should be far from the “kind” bubble promised by the Happy Healing Rules. Then I wonder, what on earth must they be thinking about us? I decide that it is probably better they do not know I speak French and move on to share with D the news that our friends have moved on. At lunch that day rumours are flying around the group about the Polish and their abrupt departure. Someone even asks Pinaan Jim what has happened to the four new Pinaans to which he replies something about people coming to his home for a holiday and not to work. Everyone laughs at his hilarity and I am reminded of a programme I watched in the UK hosted by Derren Brown regarding herd mentality.
I am sure that individually these volunteers, just like most humans, are kind, considerate people. The strange, new environment and imposed rules seems to have shifted the balance causing a new sense of confused identity. The place begins to have a cult feel for me. Everyone silently keeping a close watch in their peripheral vision on the doings of the others while acting 100 precent 'mindful' on their own task. I try to smile at people as they walk past but at times I struggle to even make eye-contact. As I remove myself emotionally from everyone I begin to observe the whole affair as though I am watching a documentary. Perhaps the already formed Happy Healing Group felt threatened at our arrival seeing as we made up six new volunteers. They did not know we were not travelling together and usually each day brings one, maximum two new members to the family. Six was perhaps too much of a change for them; us coming across as intimidating to them as we they were to us. Who knows?
I am now positive that were we to have arrived separately from our Polish friends our first experience and impressions would have played out very differently. Luckily this is the sort of place that depends hugely on the current volunteers, and new ones come and go every single day causing a constant change in the atmosphere. We decide that we will take it upon ourselves to welcome the newbies each day, explaining where things go, what to do, what not to do and just insuring that their all important first impressions differ greatly from our own.
From then on things do get better. We meet and greet many new arrivals and begin to feel more at ease. We grow extremely fond of Pinaan Jim’s brother, wife and uncle who speak little English but still regularly manage to make us smile and laugh. I can feel my body benefit from tuning itself into a sleeping pattern that follows the natural light of each day. It is not that the pace of life slows down here but more that time itself takes on a completely different dimension. Things that occur only the morning before quickly feel as though the have happened at least a few days ago. With little electricity and no electronics we are able to allow ourselves to live fully in each moment. We partake in different activities including clearing an area of the forest, learning which bamboo to use for construction and how to chop it down most effectively. We then use the bamboo to build new paths for the garden. An afternoon is spent shelling and roasting coffee beans, a long fiddly task which will forever make me appreciate the coffee I drink each morning. While each evening a fire is lit near the buffalo mama and her baby, the smoke keeping the mosquitos at bay. I also learn that the white sap from the banana leaf stalk is great to use as as a natural moisturiser for dry hands and that soaking timber in swamp water for months on end will eliminate the chance of a termite infestation. Almost all of this new information, however, we learn from other westerners living at the HHH. This is not to say that I am choosy about where my knowledge comes from but I came here expecting to learn more from Pinaan Jim himself.
I wanted to learn about the Lanna tribal ways and culture. More about the properties of the plants in Pinaan Jim’s garden and surrounding area. Information on his religion and the techniques to meditation. I want to feel like I am really helping the project but most of the time I am busy trying to find something to do that makes me look occupied so that I am not deemed lazy by the others. Which, when you consider the fact that we are paying to be here... it all just begins to feel like a waste of our time. With a little more structure and communication I am sure that this place could be a haven for all. I try to stifle my frustrations knowing that they stem from nothing more than my own expectations. The hardest to accept, however, is the host himself; a man I find myself almost avoiding by the end of my stay.
When Pinaan Jim makes the odd appearance it is usually to firmly inform us (yes, it is always us) to quit talking and be mindful. We try but we have befriended an Italian and although the other volunteers talk as much as us, as I have discovered with most of my Italian friends, his voice is always the loudest . This is repeated so many times that we begin to loathe the term rather than embrace it as, sadly, the concept and its properties are never explained to us. In many ways I am fascinated by this ex-Monk with a difference. He is a heavy smoker with a self-confident almost arrogant personality who loves nothing more than to indulge in his passion of cock-fighting (which i personally disagree with but culturally accept). His comments, at times, ever so slightly condescending towards westerners:
“When people in the West rise in the morning they speak before mind awake. They say “Did you sleep well?” thing like this. We call this bullshit!”.
This is repeated more than once during my time at the HHH, although lost on the none-native English speakers who repeat ‘bullshit’ with his accent thinking they have just learnt a new Thai word: “ah pusheet” they echo as I stifle a giggle. Although I must agree with him. I have noticed that we westerners are more likely to fill awkward silences with pointless words. Even while we think of a response we “erm” and “um” while people here really think before they speak. I just disagree with being told what I do and think is bullshit at six in the morning. These comments seem to go unnoticed by the other volunteers who all love the man. I even hear him being referred to as 'enlightened', which is a little too far for me.
What I can say is that I hugely admire Pinaan Jim’s determination and achievement in having created the Happy Healing Home eleven years ago. His dream realised way before the help of the internet. He was still able to reach out to the world and allow his reputation, the HHH and the project grow to what it has today. Almost 5000 volunteers have passed through, some staying for a few days others 12 months! The HHH offers so much freedom to those who are skilled and creative enough to use it. For a young engineer or architect this place is a dream. Everyone comes here for different reasons and with different approaches to learning. Many find exactly what they are looking for in both the HHH and in Pinaan Jim. Our own experiences here, for sure, would greatly differ from another’s. Reading the massive amount of positive feedback he receives online, I would even say our own experience was clearly out of the ordinary. Therefore I highly recommend visiting, if you can, and trying it out for yourself. For us, it is time to move on. We will not, however, leave empty-hearted having met many wonderful Pinaans and learnt many new skills. We have had immense time to spend admiring the diversity that is our own species and had time also to realise that we are clearly not ready to fuse farming, meditation and mindfulness all together… yet. One at a time maybe. Next stop: Buddhist Monastery.