By spending half of my Thai days volunteering at my third Workaway project, I confirmed my theory that the more popular a destination was, the less interested I am. I couldn’t bring myself to go for the beach parties and elephant sanctuaries. Instead I went to a dusty unknown village to learn more about Buddhism and local customs. As volunteers we slept on mats, ate on mats, practiced yoga on mats, and lived in harmony with cats, dogs, ants, mosquitoes, and snakes. We agreed that the ideas exchanged were profound enough to change our perspectives forever.

 

 

If you told me one year ago how I think and travel now, that I value a mindful, spiritual philosophy, that I like slow and simple living, and even sleeping, that I could sit still for half an hour, I would tell you, “Um, no?”

The accident started in Brazil. I was accepted last-minute to live with a spiritual community. It wasn’t spirituality that drew in most of the eight volunteers. It was the opportunity to try something new and cross paths with other travelers away from the backpacking trail. I met the beautiful Parbinder, who raved about Thailand primarily because of The Mindfulness Project, and who is also the woman who I ended up becoming best friends and sharing career goals and backpacking Colombia with.

Then there was Marcela. In our Bolivian adventures right after my travels in Brazil, she was a huge advocate for meditation because “it gives you your life back.” I would try it with her now and then, without much enthusiasm or success.

Little did I know by then I was already changing. My new Colombian roommates also understood the value of the present and by the end of my junior year, we would have short meditation sessions in our bedrooms (“is anyone allergic to incense?”). I was also cutting back on how busy I was to have more me-time. I was the most grounded and happy I had ever been.

As far as this summer goes, I did not foresee the impact that Buddhist principles would have on me as I stumbled into hospitals and monasteries in the devout nation of Myanmar, where all boys are sent by their parents to live as a temporary monk as early as age five, where patients were at times bored when you tried to engage them in art or music because they would rather meditate. I was touched by the selfless good deeds and I witnessed around the country that were carried out by kind hearts of people who were born with so much less than me.

Finally, I found Anny, the doctor I want to be. She valued Eastern and holistic medicine without ignoring the modern skills she was taught in school. It was not a coincidence that she loves yoga, meditating, and the “back to basics” lifestyle that is so good at rescuing one’s mental health from the toxic standards and consumerism of the first-world.

I wonder—do all people who travel for longer periods gravitate away from thinking about where we’ve been and where we’ll go, and towards thinking about the present, or about nothing at all?

 

 

I’ll add that I don’t loooove meditation. I don’t do it that much and my mind is far from stillness. I am not religious. But I certainly apply new concepts to my down time from adventuring, I have always believed in God, and I’m beginning to understand the power of spirituality.

For me, the power ultimately lies within my newfound capacity for gratitude. The number one thing this “journey” has shown me is how every day is a gift. How my life is someone else’s dream. No matter what might be troubling me at any time, I better own up to the fact that I probably put myself in the situation that led to my hardships. I better not forget I didn’t have an arranged marriage when I was 15.

So now at The Mindfulness Project (TMP) I was conscious of the fact that I cared about expanding how mindful I was. Which was good, because it’s kind of named for that.

To fully understand all Workaway gave me and how you can do it too, please read this post.

 

Afternoon walks through Baan Muang Wan.

 

Getting There

Khon Kaen (KK), the closest major city,  may be reached by bus from any province in Thailand. I followed the instructions found on the project’s website.

At the KK Bus Terminal 1 I repeated “Ban Muang Waan” to ticket vendors until I was taken to a minivan around platform 14 or 15 and hoped for the best. I showed them the first photo on page three, and they dropped me off just after the bridge seen in the distance of the picture.

To get into the village, I started following the rest of the photos and was almost immediately picked up by a lovely woman driving a truck. She dropped me off near the third to last picture. I continued to use the photos knew I had made it as I saw an increasing amount of international travelers.

They say don’t go as it’s getting dark. Seriously, don’t do it.

 

Dining, meetings, yoga, talking all take place here. Photo credit: Rosie.

 

Mindful Food & Accommodation

A daily fee of $6 is asked of volunteers to cover costs, though it was technically for “yoga and Buddhist teachings.” At the time I was there, our dorm was a mass of sleeping pads and mosquito nets. We never used more than we needed.

Meals were vegetarian, with vegan options always available. Long-term volunteers took charge of making a healthy, beautiful breakfast. Short-term volunteers took care of lunch. There was always tons of fruits and vegetables. So much so that even though food was served buffet-style there was always enough left over to cover dinner, saving time and energy.

TMP was the most environmentally-conscious place I have ever lived. By using only natural products (can purchase homemade soap, toothpaste, and repellent on site), compost toilets, dump showers, and a three-basin dish washing system that was all new to me, we cut way back on our carbon footprints and water usage. Becoming a volunteer was a great opportunity to learn how to build and make these eco-friendly utilities. I know ingredients in the toothpaste included salt, coconut oil, mint, and stevia, while the soap was heavy in kaffir lime content.

The mosquitoes and critters were quite a lot for me to handle as detailed below, but I know it is much better in cooler seasons. I recommend investing in a good natural repellent or a handheld fan.

 

If you want more breakfast for dinner, help yourself.

 

Volunteer 

Christian and Anja are a German couple with a great love story and even bigger hearts. They left home (successful company and employees and all) to take search for enlightenment. For a short time they became monk and nun at Wat Pho in Khon Kaen. Eventually they realized that one of the best ways to give back was to start a teaching project from scratch.

Before breakfast Anja taught Hatha yoga and leads a meditation session. Most evenings Christian led a talking circle—the crux of TMP—with featuring a very personal question. The talking stick was passed around, and we each shared our favorite moment of the day and answer to the question, using as little or many words as we were willing to. The question, which often brought out deep emotions in the volunteers, was a segue  into the related Buddhist teaching of that night, followed by another session of meditation.

In the daytime our tasks ranged from natural building with mud bricks, to coming up with a menu and cooking for 30 people, to weeding in the garden, to general cleaning using natural products. We worked in groups, constantly learned from one another, and made decisions together.

Every week or so we took a day trip to either the village monastery or Wat Pho in the city to further explore Thai culture, meditation, and Buddhist topics. In the city, we could sign up for amazing (and amazingly cheap) massages when the Buddha Day was over. The following day was a free day good for bonding and exploring with other volunteers.

To check availability and join the project, use this application portal and/or this Workaway page.

 

 

Day 48 (pm)

Reaching mindful places typically isn’t the easiest mission in the world.

After receiving and returning at least a dozen sweaty hugs with strangers, I chatted with a few until they were no longer strangers. I could tell they really loved their experience here.

I asked for a teaching that changed their points of view in the few days they’d been here, and I’ll never forget Falco’s answer— that our minds are always obsessed with how we aren’t good enough, or beautiful enough, or something we shouldn’t have done or someone we want to be or will become. But the past and future tenses do not exist. The only reality is now, this moment now, and the fact that you are here.

And in this moment now you are perfect.

Day 49

Sometimes the place I am staying hangs a giant branch of ripe bananas from the ceiling so everyone can access a healthy snack at all times of the day. Bocas del Toro was one of those places. This was also one of those places.

I woke from what felt like a night of camping and volunteered to help with lunch. A kitchen at last! I struggled with making the largest stir-fry of my life, but it was appreciated by 30 mouths in the end.

Once a week we visited the local school to practice English with the children. I know people get fired up about having the students repeatedly losing the volunteers they have grown attached to, but I don’t think they were that interested in me and my one-time appearance.

The topics of the lesson were fruits and animals. It amused us all when the local teacher informed us that the children were having trouble remembering “horse” when a picture of the animal was displayed because they have never seen a horse before. On the contrary their favorite animal was the gecko, made obvious by the gecko sounds they were making, which were noises unknown to the ears of most schoolchildren back home.

 

Homemade organic rosella tea could be purchased for a dollar.

Day 50

All the lectures on Buddhism I’ve received in school have flown out of my head. Good thing I have Christian and his Buddha Days. We spent the night on the floors of Wat Pho and rose before sunrise to learn walking meditation from him. One of my roommates was a doctor, but the really crazy part was that she was the third  backpacking, residency-avoiding doctor I’d talked to that week.

In addition to giving some bananas as alms to monks and watching a lot of Thai people pray, some ideas I learned that day included:

Buddha saw both genders as equal. There is one story used as rhetoric to put women down (for example ban them from stepping onto the main part of a pagoda), but historians say the syntax of the story does not match the rest. This indicates it was later added.
“Past karma” was the thoughts that show up meditation. It is the source of the hindrances that we encounter as we try to free our mind from thoughts.
One such hindrance was sensual pleasure. Most of our energy is drained by our senses. I appreciated Christian’s advice to go through each of our five senses and imagine myself shutting it off.
Another hindrance was ill will, related to our tendency to make judgements, including of one-self.
Restlessness, sloth and topor, and doubt were remaining hindrances. One benefit of setting a timer for meditation was to prevent thoughts of arguing with oneself until one gives up the meditation session.
Meditation can be seen as absolute reality because during those moments one is at peace with oneself and all others.
Christian also shared some anecdotes. During one intensive meditation retreat his teacher would not let them use shoes, even as they trekked miles across asphalt that was hot enough to cook blisters into their feet. Nurses were waiting for them at the end point. To help train the mind, sometimes monasteries hang up a poster of a very beautiful young woman next to a poster of a very old and very naked woman. For further facilitation of attachment, it used to be standard for monks to mix all the food in their alms bowl into one soupy glob of sweets, meats, rice, and fruits… it all comes out as shit anyway, right?

I had my best meditation to date. It was hot and my legs were soon on fire in their crossed position, but I chose not to feel it or give it my attention. Freeing my mind, I was astonished when tears started spilling down my cheeks. I described it to friends as tears of gratitude, to be able to wake up and live my dream, and the emotions of all travel gave me. I wasn’t thinking, I didn’t think I was capable of such reactions, it just came. And it was incredible.

Then I paid $7 for one hour of Thai massage and one hour of Western oil massage in the Wat’s clinic.

 

Free day for exploring Khon Kaen.

 

Day 51

“I have officially eaten my way through Khon Kaen.”

Yes you have Rosie, yes you have.

Our free day was a nonstop flurry of food and escalation of blood glucose. Two moments that help illustrate are when the lady trying to sell us mysterious pamphlets gave up and laughed with us as I shoved a grilled banana, rice pancake, and candy floss into her hands. And when we later broke out summer rolls and spicy dip in the back of a truck, mid-hitchhike, mid-sunset.

Back at the project, the sightings of some poisonous snakes spurred a good deal of drama that would last several days. Many volunteers were upset that a villager was brought in to take care of it, which means publicly killing it. I agree with the argument that the point of the project was to find a sustainable way of living with nature, and as we bring health back to the land more snakes will come, and this is the Thai jungle after all, and Thailand has hundreds of snake species, so if we can’t handle it then maybe we shouldn’t come to the project.

What I did was use more caution and more flashlights when walking at night, but I remained barefooted under the principle that the snakes would hide when they heard me. Later that week as we left the entrance of the project, a volunteer just steps behind me was bitten out of the blue. The nonpoisonous snake was believed to be the same one that bit another volunteer in the same spot two weeks ago. Both were rushed to a hospital and returned to the project in no time. However, locals had also been bitten recently as the rainy season was fast approaching, and one case resulted in the death of a villager.

If a volunteer actually died from a bite everything would be over. I would be unable to live with the thought that if we saw a snake and knew we lacked proper barriers or even a door in the dorm, we could have prevented the loss of a human life but didn’t.

Our votes finally decided that if more snakes were seen, we would make a sign-up for those interested in taking shifts to watch it throughout the night. We also found a messed up mostly-dead baby chick and made a sign-up to stay with it as well.

The chick and all the volunteers made it. No more snakes were sacrificed. Bless everyone’s sensitive and loving souls. These solutions could only come from the first world my friends, only from the first world.

 

Day 52

When I first arrived to TMP I was warned that even healed scabs should be properly bandaged up because the flies find everything and eat it. And because they were eating the flesh of all of us, fresh and dead, and because they also fed off the dead animals in the woods, infections were normal. Most common was the mosquito bite that got scratched too often: the skin breaks, and in come the fuckers.

Since even my eyelids were not spared by the time my first talking circle was over on my first night, of course I had such a scratched bite on my foot.

That day I lost my band aid in the sludge I was stepping in to mix it up for sticking clay bricks together. Luckily the situation never escalated and I’ve survived many more open scrapes on my feet.

Sawing through a brick under the midway sun is not how I imagined a trip to Thailand, but here I was. Sweating two rivers for every one brick halved.

 

Excuse me you have some dirt and rice husks on your face.

 

“How did your last relationship end?”

After discussing this in the talking circle we received a very interesting teaching on meta sutra, or unconditional love, that I still consider almost every day.

 

Day 53

“What are your most and least favorite aspects about your gender?”

The common answers surprised and intrigued me as I try to not see a difference between genders in the first place, or think about it. I’m also the opposite of curvy.

The female volunteers lamented that they could not solo hitchhike and dirt-bag as they pleased. So true. Even to walk down a darker street at night comes with so many risks just because of our anatomy.

They also expressed that they hated being sexualized. All the time. In every situation.

And the male volunteers didn’t like that they were always seen to be sexualizing a woman, to the point where it was hard to have normal interactions without being taken the wrong way.

Day 54

My favorite intersection in the village had it all: wifi, ice cream, street food, and laughing children under the watch of the smiling adults.

Day 55

My days started with a really good yoga followed by a wholesome breakfast. Then we work before having a lunch that was blessed by Christian and his eloquence. And then my favorite part, walking through the village eating sweets.

For example today I sat on a bench across from the village school sipping a green tea slushee feeling so young again.

I usually ended by feeding my flesh and blood to ants and mossies.

 

Drop everything and scream for Asian ice cream sidecars! Bowl, cone, or hamburger bun??

 

Day 56 (am)

We had a local Buddha Day which meant I was eating alms again. Only this time, there were two monks, not 1,000.

I felt overheated and unable to meditate. I tried walking, sitting, lying, and I think I slept more than meditated.

For the full benefit 10 days are needed at TMP, but the next day was a free day and I knew I had to visit Chiang Mai.

I’ll miss the strums of Sergej’s guitar and the bells of the coconut ice cream woman. I’ll miss Mamu and Egg, the kittens who would find my lap and stay during the talking circle, or wake me in the middle of the night fighting each other and treating my toes as prey that must be hunted with stealth.

I’ll miss Marie’s cheer, Tiana’s sass, Anja’s smile, and Christian’s hugs.

Kop khun kha!

 

 

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