‘Naomi,’ Kate said suspiciously, whipping around and looking me over, ‘why do you smell…clean?‘
I looked down. My freshly laundered shirt was the only thing around us not covered in dirt and sweat.
If my time in Thailand had a theme, it was definitely getting dirty.
By working on farms, I mean!
I’ve told you about the first farm I stayed at, just outside of Chiang Mai, but not yet about the real test of roughing it – 2 weeks out in bumf*ck nowhere, cut off from town, electricity, reliable water, real showers, buildings that weren’t bamboo shacks, any semblance of privacy, and – gasp – any sort of cell or WIFI signal.
I was taking a permaculture course in Thailand, outside of Pai, a happy little hippie town up in the far northwestern corner of the country, on a plot of land that was almost completely a blank slate.
And despite its challenges, I have to say – in this whole year of travel, that has been one of my favourite adventures.
Maybe it was getting in the dirt, learning new skills, pushing the boundaries of my comfort level or just meeting the most curious, inspiring figures, but it’s become an experience I find myself more and more drawn to repeating.
We did our permaculture course on New Land, a sister property to the Tacomepai farm in Pai. In contrast to Tacomepai, which is a well-established farm with (most of) the comforts of home, New Land was…a different beast.
To start, it was 12 km outside of town, and 3km away from the highway down unpaved dirt roads. You couldn’t call it a farm just yet, as there was barely anything there. We slept in tents or small bamboo shacks – with, at most, two walls – and the largest structure was just a rambling bamboo kitchen hut at the entrance.
When we cooked, it was over a wood-fire stove, and we ate out of bowls that were made from half-split stalks of bamboo.
The water system was managed by two wells, one solar powered, and one bike powered – to get water from the latter, you had to hop on the bike pump and pedal it out of the ground yourself. Water was scarce out on New Land, and though there was always enough to drink, we couldn’t always wash or water the garden.
When there was enough for a shower, you had use a bucket or the bike pump shower.
Ingeniously, but sadly on the last day, some gals built a shower using a tree, a tarp, a garden hose, and a plastic bottle poked with holes and filled with lemongrass. Dammit! Why did that farm spa action come so late?!
Our power supplies were limited to the kitchen solar panel, which could barely turn on the one lightbulb at night, and a truly miraculous solar-powered oven – just a thick metal box with four reflecting panels to direct heat inside. Our project manager and chef extraordinaire, Bank, turned out some killer cookies and bread from that thing. They were our little touches of luxury.
So, on this dusty piece of land, little more than camping in the fields, in the midst of the dirt and the dust and the sheer possibility of this new land, was where we’d do our permaculture course.
And that was, without a doubt, the appeal.
In the mornings, when we sat in the classroom hut, we’d talk food forests and look out to where the mango trees could grow.
We’d study swales and then walk through the hills to map where to put them.
Getting soap meant going out and picking the plants ourselves (with soft, oily green leaves), then putting them to boil with soapnuts.
Plotting gardens meant grabbing a machete, hoe and spade and going to clear the lower valley.
We were enmeshed in the land we were studying.
We were covered in dirt and sweat, waking up to the sun on our faces, walking around barefoot with tiny scratches on our legs, and disconnected from Facebook and Buzzfeed. I’d say we only got into town maybe once a week. I had a large burn on my leg from an earlier accident, and had nothing but Thai antibiotics, some bandages, and massive leaves of aloe vera, split down the middle and taped directly to my skin, for treatment.
To my surprise (and relief…), it worked! Now I just have an badass souvenir scar.
And you know what? I loved every second of it.
I loved being outside, waking up with sunrise and the morning mist over me, being enmeshed in fresh air, really far out there in the ass end of nowhere, learning from the land as we were in it.
I loved rolling out of bed and into morning yoga, the amazing vegan masterpieces Bank whipped up in our little kitchen, and even the nights that rainclouds rolled in hard and broke open over the land, chasing us into our little huts (or, conversely, right into the rain to get a bit of a wash).
But, most of all, I loved disconnecting from the outside world, and connecting with this crazy group of people.
We came from all over – New Zealand, Thailand, Japan, Spain, France, England, Germany, Australia, Sweden, Canada, America. We were all there to learn, but everyone wound up teaching at some point as well.
Classes quickly diverted off-topic into discussions of aquaponics and chinampas, and a completely novel vocabulary went flowing through my head each day.
And in the evenings, after work or class, when in our former lives we might be curled up in front of a movie or aimlessly dicking around online, we found entertainment just in our time together.
A fire pit appeared pretty quickly, and musical instruments soon followed, so some nights we’d just sit outside, having easy jam sessions with a guitar, ukelele, didgeridoo, drums, voices…and even a few mouth harps.
Uncertainly, one night, Asia walked into the main hut and asked, ‘Uhm, is it OK if I crack a beer in your moon goddess circle?’
The lot of us girls had gathered and were playing with mana cards, dowsing crystals and reiki energy. Maybe we only half-believed it, but the full moon was approaching, and the men were coming by periodically to bring offerings of mango, chips and beer…so why not?
Hell yeah, we’d have a moon goddess circle!
(Y’know, as often should be.)
But the most striking element of all? During our evenings together, not once did someone pull out a smartphone to idly check their apps, the pale blue light of a subtle snub illuminating their face.
During the past year I’ve been struggling a lot with balancing connectivity in my life – the majority of my work and my creativity takes place online, but, to be honest, I actually feel uncomfortable online for long periods of time – and mildly awkward around people who are always on their mobile devices while you’re having a conversation.
Though I’ll often spend long afternoons in a cafe to catch up on writing and photo editing, it later builds up to a point where I find myself wishing that I could do more work offline, away from a computer screen.
I crave being present. I crave being connected to what is immediately around me.
And that’s one reason why I loved this time on New Land so much. We were completely disconnected while we were there, and if there’s anything my time on these farms has shown me, it’s that that makes me feel more alive.
I notice more, take deeper breaths, and spend each day feeling that much more aware of my surroundings.
I’m not constantly distracted. There’s nothing else calling my attention away.
And now, I miss that. I can try to recreate the feeling by choosing to go on walks around Luang Prabang after work, closing my laptop and exploring the neighbourhoods with nothing on me but my keys and my camera – but those same online assignments will have to get done later (because the work never ends, even after my day job does).
It’s become part of a dilemma that I’ve been facing when thinking about my plans for the next few months, and the future of this blog.
But we won’t worry about that just now; ABH ain’t going anywhere.
For now, work is almost over, and it’s time to turn off the computer and reconnect.