Sodsai Farm, Khun Yuam - Thailand
28.03.2016 - 12.04.2016
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See you there
Our days in the idyllic mountains of Northern Thailand are coming to a close. We have only time for one more voluntary work placement and this time we choose a mushroom farm. In fact, that is a lie. At this point we have no idea where we are going. After contacting Piak last minute, we try to decipher exactly what it is we will be doing. His profile is a little vague but we are able to gather that the work involves some sort of sustainable agriculture. He mentions a ‘mushroom train’ in his emails and I envision a colossal, red steam train rushing through the mountains topped high with thousands of mushrooms.
During the nights of the dry season the mountains of Thailand come alive with red, hot scars of fire as, for reasons unbeknown to us, the forest is ferociously burned. We hear different rumours here and there, the most common seems to be that this is done so that one type of mushroom (similar in value to the truffle) will grow from the ashes. The smoke from these fires billows into the sky, thick and solid, blocking the sun from view. I have even been told that this smog reaches as far as Malaysia during the burning season. Having heard this particular fun-fact on the grapevine, I am not entirely sure of its validity but I do know, however, that the fires happen, the landscape suffers and somewhere in the middle of it all, mushrooms grow. Perhaps we will be working with these mushrooms on the mushroom train. I hope so. Having borne witness to the scorched land and to so many of these night-time blazes, I am immensely curious to find out more. Piak has given us the name of the town we need to get to and, despite receiving no response to the numerous texts and emails we have sent him the past few days, we decide to make ur way out there. With our thumbs held high, we are ready to hitch a ride.
Hitchhiking is by far the fastest, most convenient, economic and enjoyable way to travel in Thailand. This is the land ruled by the Toyota pick-up truck so odds are someone out there will have space for you and your ruck-sack in the back. On the plus side you ride outside in the fresh air, so getting car-sick is out of the question. We do use the train for longer distances but for anything else, we hitch. The longest we have ever waited for a ride is 20 minutes. The shortest, 30 seconds. The fact that you are a foreigner means that the curious and kindhearted Thai are more than happy to pick you up. “Welcome to Thailand”, they say. We have been given snacks to nibble on in the back, invited to visit favourite temples and sample organic tea. We squeeze into cars overflowing with bags upon bags of white decorative birds or with baskets filled with pungent, fresh fish from the market. On one occasion, we are taken back to the drivers house to meet his sister (an archaeologist and an artist!) and other times no communication is passed except a gesture towards the back of the car and a smile upon our arrival.
This particular morning we are armed with a small sign written in Thai, on the off chance our driver does not speak English. We take it in turns to hold the sign while the other stands in the shade. The sun is high in the sky and this particular morning the air is thicker than it should be. After around ten minutes an old truck pulls over and the driver winds down his window giving us a timid grin. It becomes apparent that our Thai sign was a good move. English is not this guys forte. As we both squeeze into the passenger seat we are given a a gracious nod. Our driver adjusts his navy cap in the rear view mirror before taking off, down the road. Some form of conversation is attempted but we do not get passed pointing towards him saying, “You from, Mae Hong Son?” The man smiles. He fiddles around with the mp3 player and Justin Bieber’s voice instantly fills the truck. The driver turns to us again, his eyebrows raised high as though waiting for our approval. Although Justin is probably not exactly the soundtrack I would have chosen for this particular road trip I give him the thumbs up and start singing, “and I was like baby, baby, baby, oooh” to show my gratitude. Once the Justin singalong has passed the driver reaches into his pocket, pulls out his phone and makes a call. I ease into my half-a-seat and concentrate on the curvy road ahead, grateful that our destination is not much more than an hour away.
Mid-call the driver vigorously hands the receiver to D, who is sitting closest to the driver’s seat. “For me?” The man nods. D takes the phone and says: “hello”…”how are you?” ...”Brazil, yes. Football, that’s right”… “What do we want? We want to go to Khun Yuam” … “How did we meet your friend? Oh, we just got in his car. We’re hitch-hiking, you know?”… “No, we don’t pay. No…”.
Sometimes the concept of hitch-hiking is lost on drivers who have never heard of it before. Some will drive you to the bus station or even hand you money for a ticket, assuming you have none of your own. Usually you can explain and in the instance that the driver really has no English, he will phone a friend. This is not the first time we have had a phone thrust in our faces. Saying that, most of the people who pick up hitchers in these parts do so specifically to practise their English and most, if not all, want to add you on Facebook. A short drive later we are waving goodbye to our new Facebook friend as we stand deserted in the tiny bus station. Step one: get to Khun Yuam. Complete. Step two: find your host… Not so simple.
“Piak’s not here”. replies Yann fervently as we enquire as to our host’s whereabouts. We have managed to make it to Sodsai Farm (pronounced sauce-aye) but we have still not managed to make contact with our host. Yann is from France, also volunteering here but only for one more day. He is tall, blond and as broad as a door. I always wonder how tall people withstand travelling around a continent clearly not designed for them. How do they find clothes that fit? Or shoes for that matter. How do they cope for hours crammed into tiny mini-vans and buses? The beds are shorter here, door frames are lower and legroom on planes is non-existent. I left Scotland as one of the shortest in my group of friends, here I am deemed tall. I am, however, still fortunate enough to slip comfortably into the Thai world. The worst of my troubles is remembering that I am no longer a size S but an XL when it comes to shopping for shorts in the market. I cannot imagine how the Thai world must look and feel to someone as tall as Yann.
Right now his height is even more exaggerated as he is standing next to a Thai man who looks to me to be in his 60s. He stares up at us suspiciously, sucking intently on a wooden pipe. “He’ll be back later on with the family”. My heart soars, “Oh, wonderful! A whole family. Does he have any children?” I ask but I have already worked out the answer. The evidence is everywhere: an inflatable, yellow deer-like-creature in the corner, a home-made bamboo playpen with matching bamboo crib. A colouring book abandoned amongst empty milk cartons and bright candy wrappers. I love children. I would say that I am far more fond of children than mushrooms, so this is definitely a bonus for me. In my own experience, when you spend time living with a family you have never met before, the children will usually be the first to take you under their wing and make you feel at home.
“There are children, yeah. Two boys, I’m not good with ages. One’s about this high…” he holds his hand around 1.20m off the ground, …“and the other one can’t walk yet”. I am elated! Surprise baby fun. Yann tells us that the baby cried in fright when it met him. Possibly because he is the first heavily bearded, white human the child had ever seen. Compared to the average Western man I have noticed that Asians have very little body hair so I am hoping that, despite my own fair skin, my smooth chops might win the little guy’s trust. “They’re not Piak’s kids though, this isn’t his house. The farm belongs to Kita, the mum. I think they’re family friends or something”. Wait, What? This is all news to us. We were pretty sure we would be staying at the hosts house. The confusion must show on our faces as Yann quickly adds: “Oh, I was the same. It actually took me around a week before I managed to contact Piak. A bit of a slippery character to get a hold of. Seems like a really busy guy.” Yann explains to us that Piak’s wife is out of town, building herself a house in the mountains (as you do). As he is not staying at his own house he thought it best for the volunteers to come here to this farm instead. “I am the first one to come here to this farm, you two will be the second. They’ve never had foreigners living in their house so it is all as new to them as it is to us. So far, so good” he then hesitantly adds… “they don’t really speak any English though.”
I recognise a hint of loneliness behind this last remark which I can totally understand. For lone travellers these isolated volunteer experiences can be so rewarding but not without their challenges. Luckily, I always have D, so hearing this does not put me off at all. Instead we sit down together with a coffee and let Yann tell us everything he knows about this placement. The family perhaps speaks no English but Yann certainly does and over the next few hours we allow him to release all his pent-up conversation in our direction. For him, we are the brief moment of companionship he has been recently missing and, luckily for us, Yann is an English speaking fountain of Sodsai-farm knowledge. Everything that has probably taken him days to puzzle over and piece together is directly handed to us on a plate within the space of a couple of hours. Thank you Yann.
As we wait for the family to arrive we join the local man, who I have now discovered is Grandfather. He is crouched on a small stool, packing what looks like sawdust into transparent plastic bags. We are outside but protected from the hot sun with a high, corrugated-iron roof, heavily decorated with cobwebs and sleepy geckos. Tall beams support the roof and are home, not only to termites, but to pots, pans, a white plastic clock and various other tools hanging on rusty nails, embedded in the wood. I will soon learn that this outdoor, flat area is the main hub of the home. There are dusty, coloured plastic crates scattered around us. Some are already full of the sawdust bags others are empty. Yann has flipped one upsized down and takes a seat before beginning with the sawdust scooping. I opt for a tiny wooden stool, probably only 15cm from the ground. We all sit around the massive pile as though we are warming ourselves around a camp-fire. Using little scoops that have been resourcefully cut out of old plastic containers, we start filling bags. Yann shows us how to make sure the bag is full enough before skilfully placing a plastic ring around the top and twisting a red elastic band to secure it tight. Whoever is behind Thai elastic-band distribution must be a millionaire.
In this country we are served almost everything edible in a clear plastic bag fastened with a small elastic band. The bag is sealed in such a way that the whole thing becomes a turgid sphere; full of air, veggies, stew, soup, salad, juice. You name it, they bag it. This also means that when we travel we are always sure to find a useful elastic somewhere in our rucksack. You would be surprised how often the necessity arises. This family is no exception, there are tiny, red elastic bands strewn all over the concrete floor as well as what seems to be fluffy multi-coloured cotton-wool. We use this at the last step, to plug the top of the filled bag. We have been stuffing sawdust into bags for an hour but the pile hardly looks like it has diminished at all. I proudly place my finished bags into a broken, blue crate while taking a break to observe a confident, little lizard creep-up on an unsuspecting fly. Grandfather also appears to decide its time for a rest. He reaches to the leather holster tied round his waist and readies his pipe for a smoke. He has not muttered a word to us so far. I am pretty sure he speaks no English but I get the feeling his silence is not due to a lack of language skills, nor is he being rude. This is just the way he is. Regardless of his lack of interest in us, I secretly find myself hoping my own hard-work is gaining his approval.
Filling and sealing a bag sounds pretty simple but I realise quickly that my own attempts are not quite making the grade. In my peripheral vision I spot Grandfather re-sealing every single one of my bags. If he is annoyed with the added work I am causing he does not show it. Unlike me, Grandfather works fluidly and quickly. His bare feet are half buried in the sawdust; dark, worn and wide. Really wide. I can only assume this comes from wearing flip-flops and walking around barefoot everyday his entire life. My feet have been cooped up in protective socks and shoes making the soles soft and sensitive to the tiniest grain of sawdust underfoot. The majority of Thai people I have seen really use their feet, not just to hold them up or for balance but also to feel their environment. In the same way I do with the palms of my hands. Before they can even walk their feet are already feeling their way around, exploring the ground beneath their skin. As toddlers their soles get thicker, harder and their feet grow and adapt with the rest of their body. Muscles and bones grow stronger with age, it only makes sense that our feet are also designed to do this. Of course, it is far too cold where I come from to possibly compare my feet to this mature man, that is ridiculous. Still, I now find myself peering down, considering for the first time my own feet, and their under-developed appearance.
The tranquility that has settled in around us is suddenly blown away by the slam of a car door and some rhythmic, dragging and pounding. I puzzle over what it could be but the sounds are completely unidentifiable to my ear. Looking up I see the inflatable deer come plummeting down the drive, a skinny boy bouncing atop. Up and down with each leap. Clearly pleased to be out of the confines of the car, he races down the steep slope that leads to the area where we have been working. His eyes are wide-set and his head looks far too big for his tiny body, I feel sure it could fall off at the next bounce. Dusty, bare feet pound the ground sending clouds of earth into the air around him. He is clearly in another world, chasing some magical creature, sadly invisible to my adult eyes. He stops abruptly, probably sensing our eyes intruding his game, and as he looks up I notice that his four front teeth are missing. I can almost see his brain calculating these new strangers sitting in his yard. The calculation is not a long one. Within five seconds he dismounts his deer and stomps past us all. Fixing his eyes straight ahead, he pretends not to have seen us and ninja leaps onto some potato-sacks stuffed with sawdust. I have spent time with enough kids to instantly recognise shy when I see it, so we just play along and avert our eyes instead to the four people who have suddenly appeared before us.
The smaller of the two men springs forward energetically and introduces himself as Piak. Finally we have found him! We are equal in height and his thick, dark hair reaches his shoulders. “Ah, you made it my friends!”, he exclaims, shaking our hands vigorously. I can tell in an instant that this man has as much energy as the timid, little boy. “Have you eaten already? Come, let’s eat! This here is Pap & this is Kita.” I peer behind him at the remaining people and take an instant liking to them. A tall man in a grey tank-top, with a lean but muscular body stands on the right. His short black hair is almost as dark as his skin, a stark contrast to his ivory teeth. His eyes smile down on us before his mouth does and in his arms squirms a chubby little baby, around ten months old. He bears very little resemblance to his skinny brother. Beautiful almond eyes give us a confused stare before his father tickles his protruding tummy which sets him off in giggles. He kicks out his strong legs and reaches out for the woman beside him who scoops him up and places him on her hip. I look up at her and find myself staring into the same almond eyes as the baby. All of Kita’s features are soft and warm. “Bang. My baby. Bang”. Naturally, I immediately think of ‘BammBamm’, the kid from the Flintstones. “A-Baaaang-Kok!” croons Pap a couple of times causing baby Bang to erupt into fits of giggles. She puts him down on the floor and lets him explore the dusty yard. I feel a firm hand on my arm and with a gentle tug she invites me to sit down on the ground beside her. Yann was right. Apart from Piak, the family’s English is pretty limited. We take it in turns to smile and laugh at our inability to communicate verbally. Kita’s eyes sparkle with curiosity and excitement and even though she cannot express it in words, it is plain to see that she is unquestionably thrilled to have us in her house.
... to be continued...
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