seriously, there was even a spreadsheet involved
In the end we decided to reach out to Yuki and John, who own a homestay/organic farm in a small Karen ("kuh-RIN") village about four hours northwest of Chiang Mai. Yuki's listing promised interesting work around their 100% natural home and a heavy focus on making the experience a learning opportunity. Between that and the coincidental name of our favorite PDX sushi restaurant (hey, we're all about serendipity), we were sold.
Luckily our timing worked with their schedule and we were able to stay with this warm, welcoming family for just under a week. Here's a little insight into our brief time on the farm...
John built the family's stilt house using lumber and bamboo from the village. It features a large common area and kitchen, three bedrooms and two bungalows by the garden (with a clay hut coming soon). The garage and storage area are under the house, the bathroom is a few meters away. There are a few amenities that other Karen village homes don't have - solar power for charging electronics, Internet access, and a full shower in the outhouse, for example - but otherwise the setup is basic but functional like other village homes we've seen. The bedrooms just have a mattress and mosquito net, the kitchen has a fire pit stove and just enough shelf space to hold essential spices and oils, and the common area has ample seating for the family and guests without the need for a table or chairs. No TV, no refrigerator, no dishwasher, no washing machine.
the common area
(and not a bad backyard, eh?)
John, Yuki and their adorable son Misato live in just one of the bedrooms but the extra rooms don't stay empty for too long - during our stay, the family also welcomed two sets of two volunteers, a homestay guest, and two family friends visiting from Chiang Mai. In addition, John's family and friends from the village stopped by daily. The house was always busy but somehow it never felt crowded... All the open walls and cooking around the campfire probably helped in that regard.
Speaking of cooking, meals were communal and everyone participated in the prep. John usually organized, everyone chopped, everyone washed, someone cooked, someone set the table, and we all enjoyed the fruits of our labor.
pounding fresh chili paste
(the more chilis, the more likely John
and Patrick were to pile it onto their dinner)
always onions, always leafy greens,
Every meal included a protein, vegetable, and rice. Nothing is wasted and everything is an opportunity for deliciousness (or just nourishment), meaning we ate some interesting food during our stay.
cow skin salad was one of the more unusual dishes
... it was surprisingly tasty
We also ate lots of pork fat with the pre-dinner rice whiskey. (Like the Polish, these guys have learned the trick of using greasy fat to absorb liquor. When we get back we are eating a plate of bacon before any happy hour... It totally works.)
moonshine rice whiskey for the win
Snacks were plentiful and usually consisted of fruits fresh from village trees or boiled peanuts (30 minutes in the shell with a little salt - so easy, who knew?).
"Jack not name, Jack fruit!"
sort of mangosteen-ish
Yeah yeah yeah, enough about the food. So what WWOOFing stuff did we do? First the unusual tasks...
One day we hiked several kilometers and spent a few hours edging paddies in the rice field.
squish squish squish
Not sure how much we really helped - I suspect our host wanted us to have the experience more than he actually needed our help - but this was one of the reasons we wanted to WWOOF here, and it was really cool to see the fields this close up.
Afterward we enjoyed lunch from the rice field. It's common practice for the workers to take a container of rice and catch the rest of the meal from whatever shows up that day. Our lunch that day featured crab/mushroom soup (both from in/around the rice field), frogs, and rice.
crabbing for lunch
baby frog appetizers - eat the whole thing
(didn't taste like chicken, exactly
but didn't NOT taste like chicken either)
who needs plates when you've got giant leaves?
Oh, and then Patrick shot a homemade rifle.
That was kind of a surreal, crazy day.
On two other occasions we helped John cut down trees. One was a tree near his driveway, which they wanted to trim in case of high winds. John climbed the tree barefoot and chopped off branches left and right with a small ax. No ladder, no rope, no safety, no chainsaw... Don't try this at home.
The other tree-chopping occasion involved four ginormous bamboo trees. Bamboo is used for everything you could possibly imagine - walls and floors, drinking cups, childproofing open-air balconies, food (mmmmm bamboo shoots) - and everything in between. We didn't get photos of the bamboo tree-felling adventure but we'll just say that watching a 20 meter bamboo tree topple, and then watching John chop it into bits in just a few minutes, is a sight we won't forget anytime soon.
One morning we slung mud in John's clay hut. Unlike the cob houses we were familiar with, where boards were stacked and a combination of mud/straw/newspaper/whatever was shoved between the boards and left to dry, this one was made from stacked clay bricks slathered in mud. The "slathering" part involved throwing mud at the wall. It was pretty fun... and terribly messy.
no photoshop here
The rest of our tasks were typical. We planted some vegetables. We turned the compost piles. We weeded. And for two days we weedwhacked the entire backyard using handheld machetes. John showed Patrick how to make a longer handle for a few of the machetes using one of the machetes..
weeds chopped down
now you can see the banana trees
Jen spent some time each day wrapping new pumpkins in thin fabric to protect them from fruit flies. And one day she and another volunteer made banana leaf planters that could be seeded and then just popped in the ground when ready to plant.
no chemical sprays on this farm!
...after a few weeks
There are several experiences that no WWOOF gig would be complete without. One is chopping wood.
day #1 - let the blisters begin!
Patrick somehow avoided the ever-present WWOOFing task of fence mending, but he did get to build a trellis from felled tree branches.
he was really proud of it
he took lots of pictures of it
And really, no WWOOFing gig would be complete without a trip down to the local water source for some refreshing R&R. Usually it's a river but this time it was a couple of pretty waterfalls a few kilometers from the house.
however, this was a WWOOFing first
a nice way to end the week
We come out of these WWOOFing gigs bruised, blistered, sore... and grinning ear to ear. We keep in touch with all of our hosts who treated us like family and taught us so much, whether we were there for four days or fourteen. Not only do we learn, we sometimes teach, too - during this visit we were able to share tips from our compost-making experience during our very first WWOOF gig back on Gabriola Island. Perhaps during a future WWOOF gig in Australia or New Zealand, we'll be able to share homemade trellis-making or the art of turning chili, lemongrass, salt and onion into an awesome sauce.
Or maybe we will share tips on how to live with less. Self-sustainment is not a treehugger fad or even a choice, really, in hilltribe villages - it's a way of life. There are obviously no Home Depots or Whole Foods here; the small village shop is not always open or stocked, the closest major town is two hours by car, and the clay road leading to the village sometimes gets washed out during the rainy season. So if you don't have something, and your neighbor doesn't either, and you can't improvise or go without, chances are you don't really need whatever it is.
We have no delusions of living this simply when we get back to the States. But each WWOOF gig reinforces that we want to be more thoughtful about the "things" we acquire, and the food we eat every day, and how we spend our work days and our free time, when we return. Because this "time of our lives" that we're having right now? It doesn't have to end in February...