After all the cars were packed, we hit the road. Four pit stops, one delicious lunch of sticky rice and bacon, a slight detour, countless bumps along the mountain roads, fantastic views of late afternoon unihabitated valleys, and six hours later, we finally arrived at the village. Our group set up camp at what seemed to be the community area. A large open area was outlined by school buildings, a kitchen, a city hall type building, and a makeshift stage. The trucks were all quickly unloaded with industrious ant lines. The air started to cool towards twilight and I meandered knowing that my conversations were limited with the majority of my comrades. I felt a little lost, until I found the kitchen.
I think the best phrase to learn in a new language is "how can I help". Sure "where is the bathroom" and how much for beer" are crucial, but there is no easier way to throw yourself into a new culture than to work with the people. I was welcomed to the floor of the kitchen with a knife and directions to cut this and that for some soup. Words for foods in Thai and English were exchanged, and I slipped into the comfortable role of doing repetitive tasks towards a goal. Soon dinner was prepared and served and the party really started.
As the sun slipped behind the forested peaks to the west, the rice whiskey flowed out into cups of ice and was watered down before passing into all hands. As a spread of chicken wings, pork intestines, and more party grub was wolfed down, the villagers made an appearance. Children sat in rings of folding chairs around a roaring fire while adults stood in their own groups off in the flickering shadows. There was a clear divide between villagers and donators. Strange I thought, giving the nature of the visit, but I leapt across the gap and made some broken conversation with the villagers. The extent of my language and relatability was about the same with both groups, so I figured why not. The kids were shy but full of smiles. I was able to chat about my work in Thailand with some of the men, helped much by a seminarian who could speak a bit of English. I also learned there were 500 people and 49 houses in the village.
I spent the rest of the night drifting from group to group, generally staying quiet and watching the friendly faces converse in the glow of flames and in a language I couldn't follow at normal speeds. I went back forth and thinking how strange and wonderful it was that I had ended up as the only caucasian on a remote mountain in Thailand and how I had perhaps traveled too far from the familiar. For the first and I'm sure not the last time on this three month journey, I felt foreign and maybe a little too far from home. I think those are the moments when one really grows, when one really feels what is important to them. Late into the night, the stars became sleepy and I decided to head off to my mattress in the schoolhouse. As I tucked in, I was told to be ready at 6 am.
Far too soon (5:30 to be exact) for my up late body, the speakers starting to blare Thai pop again. As alarms go, it wasn't my favourite, but it certainly did the job. I shuffled to the kitchen and for the second time in my life thought, "I need coffee". Two cups of instant and a few pestles of mashing chilis later, and I was ready to take on a day in which I had no idea what to expect.
In the end, it turned out to be quite a pleasant day indeed. We set up a fair for all the kids from the village. Little mini games from my childhood like picking up those rubber ducks at the fair and kicking a soccer ball through a hoop led to rewards of pencils and prepackaged candies and chips. The top students from each school in the area were acknowledged and then performed dances or songs in front of the now mixed and chattering crowd of villagers and visitors. Despite an overbearing sun on the open area on top of the peak, the day passed by easily until we packed up after a communal lunch. I was happy to crash in the back of a pickup after an unexpectedly festive donation mission. The trip back slipped by easily as deep green mountains passed by slowly beneath a lagooon blue sky spotted with puffed clouds. Exhausted from the whirlwind weekend, I was happy to finally pull into the farm driveway five hours later.
BONUS! Making bricks
The last three days my work days have consisted of mixing up and laying bricks to bake in the sun. There is a new farm guesthouse in the works and hundreds and hundreds of the bricks need to made. The process is a simple but particular one. 15 baskets of red velvet clay, a wheelbarrow full of sand, and a bag of rice husk sprinkles makes up each layer. Pile a few of these one top of each other in a pit and you get a sedimentary cake ready to be all mixed up. Lots of water and stomping around later and you have a consistency ready to be moulded. The mixture is then dumped into a homemade wooden mold for 5 bricks and smoothed out to chocolate bar silkiness. My legs and hands are stained Oompa Loompa orange ( or it just looks like I messed up my spray tan), but the job is a satisfying one. Knowing that something you create with your hands will become the walls that someone will call home is comforting.