Volunteering can do more harm than good sometimes, and we did a lot of reading on this topic. One quick read we recommend is the The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook. So we try to keep all this in mind when seeking opportunities to donate our time.
That being said, we recently volunteered on an organic farm in the mountains of northern Thailand.
Happy Healing Home began about a decade ago by Pinaans Jim and Tea. Pinaan means “human”. You address someone as Pinaan “First Name” to acknowledge that this person is a fellow human, a friend to be trusted.
From an empty field with a few trees, they transformed their place to include herbs, vegetables, fruit trees, a rice field, huts, open air kitchen, pond for fishing, clean water source, and pens to keep the chickens, buffalo, and pigs.
Their lives revolve around being self-sufficient and living off the land which they cultivate. Seemingly every plant has a purpose. Over 4,000 volunteers have stayed with the family to help with various projects and make Happy Healing Home what it is today. Not only does the family receive help, the volunteers also receive numerous benefits.
Benefits to the Family
- Helping hands. Obviously, Jim and Tea can receive much needed help in maintaining their home as there is always work to be done. Living off your land is certainly a romantic idea, but it isn’t easy to be totally self-sustaining. Volunteers help ease the workload significantly.
- Cultural exchange is another benefit. The family may not be in a position to travel (they actually expressed that they did not have the desire), but the world can come to them through volunteers. Subsequently, their English language developed well. Each volunteer has a skill or interest to share whether it be creating art from recycled material, building a water-powered energy source, helping with computer and website work (as Adam did). The family received a computer from a past volunteer, perhaps their first computer, and it was difficult for them to learn how to use it because it was all in Portuguese. Adam was able to fix that though.
- Monetary income. The family does earn a little bit of money ($6 USD per person per day) from volunteers to offset the costs of accommodation and food. This tiny bit of money seems to be the only source of income for them. They don’t need much money to survive, but it is still needed for small purchases and land costs.
Benefits to Volunteers
- Learn. We received lessons on various topics — basically, if you have a question, you shall receive an answer! You can learn about meditation, Buddhism, guitar, survival, organic farming, etc., which I will discuss below.
- Authentic Thai experience. There’s a debate on what “authentic” means when travel. If it wasn’t for westerners coming to vacation in Thailand, Khao San Road, tour companies, and elephant pants probably would not exist. Then again, all of this is how Thailand is today. But I understand the need to get away from that and the desire to interact with locals on a different level. The northern region of Thailand was the Lanna Kingdom so there’s a unique culture and language that we got to experience. Most of our time was spent with the family learning in the intimate setting of their homes.
- Save money. This is a side benefit to volunteering. For about $6 USD, we had a roof over our heads, three fulfilling organic meals a day, all while learning a lot along the way. One can extend their travels and personal growth further by seeking such opportunities.
Food is cooked over a small fire slowly burning wood. Preparing food took quite a long time — no fast food or processed food allowed. There isn’t any refrigeration, so leftovers are stored at room temperature and reheated over the fire the next meal.
I had a go at making banana bread from the given ingredients, sans baking soda. Pinaan Tea doesn’t usually bake, but some past volunteers left over some flour. They also have a brick oven that was built by past volunteers, so I took the opportunity to make some of my famous banana bread! Pinaan Tung never made banana bread nor tasted it, but he challenged me to a competition of the banana breads. The ambitious and creative nine-year-old whipped up his own batter of flour, eggs, and bananas and experimented with heat and time. My banana bread didn’t come out as it usually does, but the family seemed to love it as it was gone by the evening. Glad to have shared a taste of home with them.
It is proper to just reach over a table — don’t pick up a dish to take what you want. I really enjoyed the food and felt healthier and purer as my body rid itself of chemicals, pesticides, and excess sugars I consumed. Pinaan Jim taught us to check if we have too much sugar by seeing if ants are in the toilet (squat style in a bamboo hut) after we go to the bathroom. If there are ants, there was a lot of sugar in your urine, even after flushing! I did see ants in the toilet the first few days, but not after the week.
Nothing goes to waste. Some new foods I couldn’t bring myself to eat are mashed worms (the ones that live in bamboo) and minced raw pork. It was my understanding that Buddhists, especially monks, do not eat meat, but that is not true for all. The little meat the family does consume is of high quality though. The chickens roam around freely and the pigs eat healthy foods. The animals aren’t pumped with hormones, stuffed in cages, or fed unnatural diets. Pinaan Tea said they usually prepare meat with turmeric because it kills bacteria and aids in digesting.
Trekking and Survival Skills
While at Happy Healing Home, we all went on a hike through a forest. It didn’t seem to get much foot traffic because we were slipping and sliding through grass without a marked path. When we reached the creek at the bottom, we (well, I wasn’t successful) caught fish and roasted them over a fire that Pinaan Uncle (AKA Medicine Man) started. When I thought I couldn’t be more impressed by their survival skills, he chopped down bamboo, filled it with fresh water, and picked leaves and certain kinds of wood from the forest to make medicinal tea. Then, he chopped individual bamboo cups for us to enjoy the tea.
Volunteers can learn survival skills like fetching and chopping firewood (they made it look easy, but it was really hard for me to chop!), starting a fire, discriminating poisonous berries from tasty ones, and so forth. Pinaan Jim would be more than willing to teach volunteers survival skills. He said that he taught a volunteer these skills and put him on a test by sending him to the forest with just a few tools. He lasted for two days. Perhaps either the forest spirits, wild cats, or snakes scared him off!
- Don’t think too much. This piece of advice was repeated several times by different people in the village, such as the 85-year-old smiley man who looks decades younger. They don’t mean to avoid engaging in critical thinking and creativity, but to not overthink simple things as it can lead to stress. You can keep searching for the answers, but you might find that it’s simple and right in front of you.
- Take your time. Life is slow at the farm. There’s no set schedule. They often forget the date, even their own birthdays. They don’t live by a clock. Rather, intuition guided daily life. Listen to your body. When engaging in any activity like working or eating, fully immerse yourself in the moment. Concentrate and be mindful of every motion. This is much easier said than done for me. My brain is often distracted and I eat my food quickly. I’m working on taking my time and not watching the clock.
- You can meditate anytime, anywhere, doing anything. Meditation doesn’t have to be about sitting in an uncomfortable position for long periods of time focusing on your breath. You could be walking, eating, or working. Just be present.
Bring bug spray, a torch, and keep an open mind! Enjoy.