Time for a change of pace and a little less drama.
(also I’m playing with WordPress formatting so please be patient)
Due to a happy coincidence, Jason Bourne and some lovely people, I found myself early Tuesday morning bouncing along in a black Suzuki Vitara once again, traveling North towards Chiang Dao.
Today’s project was something out of left field that once I heard about it had to get involved in. Helping out on a project to build mud brick and traditional Thai HANDMADE houses for a new center providing a refuge and respite for aid workers in the region.
Our task wasn’t going to be too challenging though – at least on paper. Most of the backbreaking hard work had already been done and the adobe house was standing proud in the mango fields. Today – some concreting and stone mosaic works on the floors and entrances. I’d had an absolutely vicious Thai massage the day before and my body still felt like it had been pummelled, punched and severely stretched by several small fisted ninja-monks. The hope was some manual labour would loosen things up. Anyway…
Have a quick read – saves me explaining about the scope and purpose in detail as I’m basically lazy ( and yes we’ve already established that)
and the organisation at —> http://womenforpeaceandjustice.org/
Their vision for the retreat:
‘Our current vision is to put out a call (by the end of 2016) to activists, well-being practitioners and facilitators, artists who would be in residency at the retreat for a certain amount of time. The “residents” would enjoy their own retreat, and also help to host and provide a minimum amount of structure for other activists seeking retreat and refuge. Activists could then select times to come for retreat, either based on what a particular resident is offering, or whenever fits in their schedule (and ours, until we are running year round, hopefully by 2018)”
And they are building this retreat by hand so not a lot of time. Just quietly, these women are amazing.
So nice and early (at least for Thailand) I met my new french friend Aure, Natalie and Sam outside the Ibis hotel as they were going to be my crew for the day. I was to be the token male although in my own defence I did actually come in handy at one point: providing a hopefully serious masculine presence when Natalie was stopped at a Police checkpoint, taken over to a table in the shade and fined 400 baht for not having a current tax sticker on the car. Luckily they didn’t notice the Kbar clipped to my pocket which I’d forgotten about (thanks Sean – best gift ever 🙂 )
**Its near end/start of month here – that’s Police payday and they ‘supplement’ their income by increasing their presence at this time every month and fining as many people as they can – quite a bit of it ending up in their pockets. There are roadblocks, traffic stops and motorcycle police EVERYWHERE.
On the 60 minute or so trip to I realised that I hadn’t been in a car for about 2 months – mostly motorcycles and pretty much alone so having a real conversation was almost a novelty. We shared our respective stories and chatted about the project and life in general. Aure, formerly a french Proof reader for a publishing company back home, had decided to relocate to Chiang Mai; Natalie formerly in banking back in the UK was now finally home with her Thai family; and Sue, Natalie’s neighbour, teacher and motorcycle fanatic (sorry Sam its true) was interested in building her own Adobe house and wanted to know more.
Aure and Natalie had completed the Natural Building Course earlier in the year,
.. and had been part of the team that really put in the hard yards on the mud brick and wooden house – Sam and I were Adobe virgins but keen to learn.
Pulling off the road close to the Chiang Dao caves, we bushbashed through muddy trails and massive towering bamboo stands, splashed through muddy puddles axle deep in dirty water, and carefully turned into the barely-a-track entrance to the Retreat.
Clouds of mosquitoes attacked as soon as we got out of the car – although this time they went straight for the women and left me alone.
This was an old mango farm gone back to nature, all overgrown and heaven for what I supposed were the millions of Pit Vipers and Monocled Cobras hiding in the long grass just waiting to kill me. Actually there are about 223 types of snakes in Thailand that all are waiting to take a bite at me, I’m certain.
I don’t like snakes. Period.
Since Lonnie (my American neighbor here) told me there were Cobras everywhere around this part of town, Ive been quietly shitting myself every time I go off the beaten track. Hence today the stomping around, solid leather boots and thick socks – although I couldn’t quite bring myself to wear long pants in the heat – rookie mistake but hey – its hot here.
Anyway, looking at the building site I couldn’t believe how much work the project team had already done. An adobe and mud brick house, with the frame and roof of the wooden house up but not walled in yet. Apparently the wooden one takes much longer due to the amount of cuts and the shape/condition of the reclaimed Teak hardwood.
I didn’t fully appreciate the scope of the task until they started to explain – “No power tools, no gadgets…all hand tools, hard work, teamwork and traditional Thai methods”. All the woodwork was chisel cuts and handsaws, hammer and nails. The only powered item they had was a cement mixer but that broke down the first time they tried to use it so all the concrete was mixed and spread by hand using tubs, buckets and mattocks.
Amazingly, the bones of the Adobe house had gone up in 10 hours, using only a plumb bob to keep the walls vertical, mud mortar, and more sweat. The tiled roof a little longer. What stood before us today was essentially an almost habitable Adobe 2 bedroom house located on an old mango farm, with million dollar views over the nearby mountains.
Anyway…after my snake paranoia calmed down, we got into our teams and started on the task at hand. Today was going to be simple – make some concrete and using simple formwork to shape entry steps and then make them pretty. Easy!
After the first 5 minutes of even hauling the stones bags into the house, I was covered in sweat. The humidity here was skyrocketing under the low cloud cover and even the slightest activity made us bleed water.
Once the formwork was tacked into place and the concrete was mixed, we poured the steps, sorted our stones, and then the fun part – creating some nice stone mosaics for the entry area. This was surprisingly relaxing and loads of fun as we could do pretty much what we liked.
Natalie was an artsy crafty type and gave us a few tips, and then we were off. Aure and I went for a Romanesque design, which was a challenge for me as my brain refused to recognise exactly what a herringbone pattern was (I’m blaming the heat) but I got it eventually and the next few hours were spent chatting and creating.
Personally I think we won, even though it wasn’t a competition (secretly though everything is a competition and ours was awesome)
So we mosaic-ed and chatted and chilled out. It was a prefect way to spend a perfect day out in the bush around Chiang Dao. We finished up around 1.30pm, quite chuffed and proud of our work and luncheoned at a ramshackle roadside food place just near the site. It made THE hottest chili dishes, and even caught Sue (a chilli afficionada )**is that the female form of afficionado? I’m not sure : Spanish speakers?** by surprise, and she spent most of dinner bright red, hoarse voiced and had to delicately pick the superhot thai red chillis out of her food.
The afternoon was getting away from us and we still had a wall to put up on the wooden house. Maybe. Well Maybe not. Next time. Yeah next time. It’ll wait. So we decided to clean up our mess, pack up the site and head back before the rains came. This was actually a safety thing more than anything else as the roads in this region are notorious deathtraps in the wet apparently – turning into rainslick wetpans and easily sending speeding trucks, vans and buses spinning and careening into your windscreen.
So we doodled home slowly in the rain, happy about the progress we’d made, and the girls made plans to continue the work. I unfortunately will be moving on, but if I do come back to Chiang Mai I’ll definitely be helping out and doing a bit more than making a tile mosiac.
So today I made some new friends, learnt a new skill, got sweaty and got involved in something extremely worthwhile. Mission accomplished and not bad for a Tuesday.
6th best day ever so far and I’ll sleep well tonight.