A Thousand Ways

As a continuing part of our travel/life philosophy, as well as a means to literally get our hands in the dirt, we have been weaving in stays at organic farms wherever it makes the most sense. At the last minute, we had an opportunity to make sure Thailand was no exception to that rule.

Our trusty steed, pictured above, spirited us - ok, bounced us - up and out of Chiang Mai for a few days around the 12th of November. We were headed to a place called PunPun, just northeast of the city and about 50km out. We would be part-time volunteering - paying a small amount to have our room and food covered while working about 4 hours a day. Eli and I were looking forward to some time out of a city, however small, and the sight of hills and dustier roads was welcome. As the vegetables, dry goods and random bags of supplies were emptied out at each small village stop, the back of the truck got roomier. We felt much like happy puppies in a pickup bed must, ears flapping in the breeze and eyes squinting into the sun.

The title of this post is borrowed from the poetic Thai meaning of PunPun. As an "organic farm, seed saving operation and sustainable living and learning center", which also focuses on natural building techniques and application, the name illustrates the philosophies and approach to living that PunPun embodies. As we settled in to our first afternoon, we got even more excited to spend a few days digging in and learning as much as possible about it all. Here are just a few of the terraced plots, currently home to many lettuce and tomato plants:

A group of twelve dynamic individuals are the human power for this living project - a heap of personality and knowledge rich, culturally diverse folks from Thailand, Burma, Scotland, the US and probably a few we do not have the specifics on. Each individual brings skill and intention to the table and is committed to seeing (and helping) this place succeed. Though we were only there a brief time, it was inspiring to be around a collective of people that manage this well. The myriad complexities of community living floated through my mind often as we participated in many of the ways that help PunPun tick. How exactly are these people self-wrangling? Community meetings, clarity of tasks, shared goals and philosophy, and the overall desire to be exactly where they are - and this, I'm sure, is just part of the puzzle. Now - I'm also not making any claims to having found utopia in the rolling hills of Northern Thailand. This is the result of a lot of work - and the continuous input of such, as well as the constant openness for and ability to change. Since PunPun works regularly with local individuals and farmers, there is consistent conversation about what role they play in their greater community, what education/skill-building workshops benefit all & what the future might hold. All this makes for a tasty brew, as wells just makes a whole lot of sense to the two of us.

Since the specifics of what they offer is outlined wonderfully on their website, highlighting what stood out the most to us (besides what has already been noted) is better than offering a play by play of our time there.

First, the lay of the land - a great and natural network of paths between houses, common areas like the kitchen and meeting rooms, bathrooms and showers, and planting areas. These buildings are all naturally built - mostly adobe, straw, clay and bamboo structures that have emerged over the past eight years. Our stay for the last two nights in the VIP room - which is more of a small home, minus the kitchen, felt downright luxurious:

Next, The seed saving operation here is vibrant and incredibly ambitious - and working well. To see a small refrigerator full of heirloom seeds in the middle of a jungle is both bizarre and encouraging somehow. Spreading the word, and seeds, of these special varieties ensures more diverse farming and, hopefully, more awareness of the need for a more organic approach. Additionally, the watering is all done by hand - which is an amazing forearm exercise for anyone looking for a new move to try. One watering can in each hand, each bed covered twice, equaling very sore arms and very happy plants. What is fantastic about this is the water holding tanks strategically placed throughout the property near the beds, making it quite simple to access it for watering. You can spy a few in the picture of the beds above. It is first held in collection tanks at the top of the hill or pumped up from a small nearby pond. Additionally, the shower water is heated entirely by the sun - which is possible when you live someplace with such reliable, year-round sun. Regardless, the water systems worked efficiently and simply and gave us lots of ideas:

Finally, the food! Oh Lordy, were we spoiled at this table. Fresh veggies everyday, some soup or curry, all full of flavor and spice, cooked up on rotation by a few members of PunPun. Happily, we got a chance to work in the kitchen on a few goodies one afternoon. We made some tasty fresh salad, used the gigantic mortar and pestle, grilled on the clay stove and learned some things: Butterfly pea juice, which is bright blue until you add sour and it turns more purple, is delicious with a little cinnamon in the mix. Mushrooms just look cooler when they are pulled into strips by hand. And sticky rice cooked en masse, steamed properly in a basket, can be flipped in a giant lump if you are talented enough. Basically, we had a lot of fun,even though everyone looks so serious in these pictures:

If we could have, we would have stayed longer - PunPun had a month long internship/workshop coming up a few days after our departure. For now, we are just happy to have spent the time we did. The people are incredibly open, engaging and full of knowledge. The land is evidence of hard work, attention to the details and lots of love. The thousand ways are constantly multiplying, with each eager set of hands that shows up.

Location:Mae Taeng, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Sitamai: Celebrations

By way of the aforementioned hour-long-10km-taxi-bus ride, we arrived to the farm late in the afternoon sweaty and a little sleepy, with dirt in our nostrils and curiosity in our pulses. It was the end of September and, for those of you not in the know, Eli's birthday was the next day (Friday the 30th). After getting settled, receiving a henna tattoo from Dipika and her best friend Monita, enjoying the first of many delicious dal bhat dishes, and being safely under the protection of our mosquito net, we passed out - but not without fleeting wonderings of what was to come with our time here, what makes birthdays really memorable and why we celebrate them anyway, and the new faces and names of those who had invited us graciously into their home floating in front of us in the dark.

The next day, I helped to grind toasted sesame seeds into a paste in the kitchen. It was satisfying to work with my hands, and particularly so because the grinding was done with a large, smooth rock on a wooden board. In the middle of this meditative prepping, I asked Pramila how, and more importantly if, Nepali people generally acknowledge birthdays. It turns out that many people aren't sure of their exact age or date of birth, particularly of the older generation, so the tradition of celebration doesn't really exist. This is changing somewhat, with the development of medical centers and health/birth awareness, but not at all swiftly. Pramila wanted to know, immediately, whose birthday it was and, cornered, I spilled the beans. This moment seemed casual enough and faded with the morning.

After some exploring in the late afternoon, we ate more dal bhat and cleaned up at the water pump. As dark came, some local kids wandered into the yard...then some more neighbors...then folks from the orphanage next door...then Madalina, a volunteer from Romania who we rode to Sitamai with, strolls in with her host family. We were wondering what was going on, fairly obliviously because of the size (approx. 30-50) of the village and the nature of people to wander in and out. Next, Pramila and Padam dragged a chair out into the middle of the yard and ordered Eli to take a seat. They had invited everyone over for a birthday celebration of Tika giving, music, and dancing! Here is Eli right before that realization...and right after receiving flowers from a stream of people and Tika from Padam.

The general mood of the village was already celebratory thanks to the national holiday of Dasain being just ready to begin. More folks were home for the gatherings, puja (devotional activities) and associated festivities; Eli's birthday was a great way to harness that energy into a night of traditional folk songs (farmer centric), drumming, and the rest. It was near that same night that the moon was to be seen and barley/corn planted, and set to seed in a dark corner of the home. The fun was surprising and exhilarating; we wanted so badly to record some songs, but decided instead to just hang out with the present moment.

Dasain essentially celebrates the victory of gods and goddesses over demons, and does so in intricately timed and highly representative ways. There is also a focus on family and the renewal of community ties during this time, hence the build up of excitement and amount of gatherings during these 15 days. As part of an offering to the goddess Durga, goats are sacrificed nationwide and the blood and meat is considered auspicious. We were invited to, and attended, a sacrifice in the village at 7am. What resonated most with us was not only the commitment to ritual, but the fact that each and every part of this animal was both honored and utilized for two families. They had raised it and they would go on to worship it and their gods by way of this process. (Though the family insisted I could photograph any part of the event, I decided the aftermath was more appropriate for me):

There is an all day Tika event, during which the elders of the families bless others by placing a holy mixture of rice, red dye and curd on the third eye area of the forehead, sprouts from the planted barley/corn are tucked behind ears or in braids, and sharing a specific wish to each person. This happens first in the immediate family and then throughout the village, as most everyone is related where we were staying. Women and men wear new clothes on this day, adding to the official excitement of the day, and we (and Madalina and Corine, another farm volunteer from Switzerland, and Kelli, from Chicago) were not left out of this part:

Swings are constructed at the entrances to villages; symbolic and literal vehicles of the requirement to have one's feet leave the earth, particularly on Tika day. They are taken down several weeks later around the time of yet another festival, Diwali. Many we saw, and used, were made of gigantic bamboo poles and rope - and the clear pros were the children and Nepali men of the village, who could stand up and get insanely high. The day we went to visit Pramila's parents (just the girls went), our taxi driver pulled to a stop near one and insisted we all get out and swing. By far the most awesome taxi ride I had in Nepal. Below is our driver, and then Dipika and Monita demonstrating the two-person tandem approach. My form was terrible, but I had fun:

While Nepal is decidedly rich in culture, tradition and ritual year-round, we feel especially lucky to have shared this time with not only a family, but an entire community. The stateside equivalent is inviting someone new (a stranger from another land entirely) into your home for a combination of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. We can only hope to return or pass along the favor, and open door, sometime.

Location:Chitwan, Nepal

Sitamai Harvest List*

A brief addendum to my previous farm post. To give a clearer picture of how diverse the produce on the farm was, I have listed everything I remember to be just past, during, or just before harvest season while we were there. Some things in rows, some interplanted, some randomly growing on and taking over trees or thatched roofs. My future garden is taking notes. *This is in no way complete but helps round out a picture:

Mango Guava Papaya Lemon Pineapple Bananas

Ginger Turmeric Lemongrass Neem Tulsi Chili Peppers a Plenty

Spinach Bitter gourd (bitter melon) Broccoli Cabbage Cauliflower Potato Radish Zucchini like squash Sponge gourd (left to dry, you can peel and have a loofah!) Cucumber Green pumpkin Lettuce Jungle Spinach (use leaves like spinach and stalk in a pickle) Carrots

Location:Chitwan, Nepal