Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Friday, August 02, 2019

A Lease of Affection

Further adventures with a tiny farm in Northern Thailand.

A Pond To Begin With

In May Clasina and her husband Panya planned a three day weekend to Mae Taeng to oversee the work of a bulldozer man. With this act she had begun to realize our dream of a farmhouse, a pond and a food forest. She had researched extensively on youtube how to make a pond that would best support aquaculture providing shelter at the edges on narrow ledges (about 2 feet wide) for spawning fish, eels and frogs. All food sources of local people in the area. When I asked my cook in Bangkok if she had ever tried the regional frog dish, she said yes, but she really preferred chicken. Heh. The pond was the same size as the footprint of the house so was quite large and deep. I was overwhelmed by the size of it when I first saw it, but realized that once it was full of water it would be just right.

The digging of the pond also provided earth to level the slope to make a flat spot upon which we would build the house. Seeing that she would be short of soil she had even enlarged a pond on the next door neighbor’s land so as to be able to use that soil too. Clasina then invited our potential building teacher Maggie to visit the land. We had already interested many of our mud hut sisters in coming to help build it as soon as this coming winter, but Maggie pointed out that the land needed to settle for at least a season in order to create a firm base upon which to build. This I felt gave us a little breathing room, though Clasina had been eager to start. 

The farm project was a respite for me from American politics (as well as Brexit) and the precarious feeling of the social contract threatening to tear apart at the seams world wide. The Thai news cycle no longer covered such overseas drama. So as not to give the populace any ideas most likely. Thailand was not, however, going to escape the impact of climate change. Though I arrived in what should be the middle of monsoon season, the rains had been scarce this year. A true monsoon season would offer rain every day, but not a drop had I seen. 

Thus having a pond was a good idea to lessen the impact of these periods of drought. It had been foremost on Clasina’s mind. Both ponds were filled by the aqueduct that ran between our lands bringing water direct from the reservoir upstream though government whimsy might close off the aqueduct for maintenance with little notice. The pond would build in resilience to our farm project.

These government built aqueducts fed much of the plots in the region. When the damn—the Mae Ngat dam— was built 30 years ago the displaced farmers were offered plots of land on the periphery of the Sri Lanna National Park. Our farm was one of these plots one kilometer away from the reservoir which was now also a vacation destination complete with floating bungalows. I felt privileged to have land on the edge of a national park. This as Clasina had pointed out would ensure there would be trees bordering our food forest to support our stewardship of the land.

The Lease of Affection

As before our first stop was at the land office for one final formality which was to sign a lease. A lease is what gave Clasina legitimacy on the land—the right to work on it and live on it. A lease also protected me, as my friends and relatives immediately wanted to warn me. By Thai law a squatter who had managed to live on your land for ten years without a lease had earned the right to take possession of it. 

“But I want to leave it to her when I die,” I said. 

“Well don’t tell them that or you will end up dead,” they told me. 

“Too late,” I said wondering what kind of narrative my Thai peers were living in that made them so distrustful. 

The government also wanted to get involved when a lease was signed for if there were payments to be made they wanted their cut. A lease of 30 years or more required government oversight. I preferred that the government not be involved so thought a 15 year lease would be adequate. Thirty years was, after all, the rest of my life. What if Clasina wasn’t able to develop the land as she hoped? Surely we needed to specify for such contingencies, but contingencies tended to spawn more contingencies. How complex would this lease need to be? All I wanted was to be included in the development decisions. I also did not want to be accountable for any business liabilities Clasina might create. I felt overwhelmed by such complexities.

The lease also had to be in Thai so we could not write our own; we would have to find one or hire a lawyer at some expense. My boy cousin had a banana farm that he leased out to tenant farmers so I asked for a copy of his lease. When Clasina got it translated she was taken aback. The lease gave the owner the power to evict the tenants with very little notice for almost no reason plus even the slightest improvements to the land had to be closely approved by the owner. That sounded like the feudal lord that my cousin would make himself out to be. It was how those of my class status operated. I agreed that it was too draconian for our purposes. 

So Clasina asked a business man she knew for advice and he offered a lease that was much more fair to both parties. It was a 30 year lease. A longer lease made her feel better about all the time she was going to be investing she told me. There had been cases of farmers putting in all the work to develop the property only to have the owner come in and say they were going to be evicted because the owner’s family now wanted to live on the land and were going to take it from there as far as farming it. It wasn’t me she was worried about, she told me, it was my relatives should I die and they came to claim my property. I could well see her point. This was exactly what happened to gay couples before marriage equality.

I agreed to the 30 year lease if she would figure out how to do all the paperwork to keep the government happy regarding taxes on payments that I was not even going to collect. What would such paperwork even look like? 
Clasina decided to ask the land office for help with these questions. So on our last trip to Mae Taeng we were relieved to learn that the land office itself had a variety of leases we could use and she had taken them home to study in the interim. 

We also learned that the government did not require that payments be made for a lease to be viable. Such a lease was called a “lease of affection”. “Affection” being the closest word for translation that Clasina could come up with. I was comforted that such a patronage relationship was common in Thailand. That it was common for an owner to want a tenant to be able to make a living from the land while keeping it from being reclaimed by the jungle. This lease did indeed express the relationship I had in mind. I wanted no false intentions to stand in the way of the universe helping us with our farm project. 

I also worried about making a Thai will which would would require a lawyer to navigate. Could we just add a clause to the lease that would leave the land to her upon my passing? 

We told our story to a clerk and were handed up the chain of command until we got to the man who could answer this question. I had met him before when I came to buy the land. He pointed out that even if the land was left to Clasina she wouldn’t be able to take possession of it because she didn’t have a Thai I.D. card. This was a bureaucratic technicality that continued to frustrate Clasina since she had long ago had the right to one with her marriage to a Thai and was still waiting for her application to be processed. The man then suggested that we sign a lease that would give her the right to the land for her entire lifetime. We had now gone from a lease of affection to until death do us part. I was liking this. It was very Gay.

“What are you two to each other,” the man asked us. 

“We are friends together,” I replied in Thai. This was indeed unusual I could see. Family being the usual basis of such patronage. He then asked me if I was single and if I had any children. Perhaps to make sure I had no one else who might object to me entering into such an agreement. Yes I was an unencumbered free agent creating a relationship not often seen outside of family. Not an unusual idea in my life thus far.

It did not take long for the lease to be prepared nor did it cost very much. Before I signed it he asked me to tell him what was now growing on the land just to confirm that I actually knew the land in question. Then he repeated the terms of the lease to make sure I knew what I was signing since it was clear I couldn’t read the document. And he explained that if we want to dissolve the lease we both had to come to this office to do so. Good enough. We signed all the signatures needed. As we walked out the door I told Clasina I felt like we should open a bottle of champagne. 

We went to use the bathroom around the corner of the building. When Clasina came out  of the stall she wanted to give me a hug. 

“I just wanted to acknowledge what a great opportunity this is,” she said hugging me warmly.

“I’m glad you’re up to it,” I said. For I did indeed feel fortunate to have found such a farm partner who was already putting heart and soul into this project while I did nothing more than watch (and give moral support). This entire process having firmed up our trust in each other.

Farm Chores

My role as watcher and not yet a doer would be further enforced the next day when I twisted my ankle walking down the embankment of our new pond in my new rocker sole shoes prescribed by a doctor to cure my toe joint pain. A humiliating event in itself for a shoe maker. A pair of slip on shoes that I had made and worn all winter was I believe the cause of it. They were too loose around the ankle causing my toe to flex with every step to hold the shoe on. This leading to degeneration of the cartilage around the joint from the overwork. (Or it could just be aging, but I was loath to accept such a thing.) At any rate the doc had promised that if I kept the toe from flexing by wearing stiff soled lace up shoes it would heal so I had bought myself the recommended shoes and was dutifully wearing them when I decided to walk down the back of the embankment of our new pond. Which was steep and the ground did not give though it looked soft. And the shoes ran away with me and I tried to outrun them, but my left foot rolled outward. As I felt the pain of my ankle rolling over I fell to the other knee to save it and safely rolled onto my back.

By the time Clasina and the three men with us turned around to see what happened I was on my back like a bug with my feet waving in the air. 

“Well that’s quite a pose,” she said wising to save my pride. I lay there assessing the damage until one of the men came down to give me a hand and I gingerly stood up and determined that I had not broken my ankle and could walk. 

The reason for the three men was that one of them was a farm consultant for the making of Swales. Swales are a classic permaculture technique to direct water through the land by means of curved ditches. The man had come recommended by our friends at Pun Pun (center for self reliance) and another man had driven him to our farm by motorbike. The third man was the caretaker from the farm next door who was interested in all that was going on at ours and would also help out if paid. So all of us were standing on the embankment listening to the consultant talk about water moving through the pond into the field below via a pipe that Clasina had installed through the wall of the pond. After listening long enough to get the gist of it, I decided to walk down into the field below rather than make my way past everyone standing on the embankment. (Would that I had just been a little more patient or assertive, but such was my character.) By the end of the consultation Clasina had learned enough to confirm that her plans were sound and the consultant refused to take any money. He just wanted to know the outcome. Then off he went with his driver while Clasina went to get ice from the village restaurant to ice my now swollen ankle. (The ice helped considerably and I would recover in time to travel home a week later.)

On the final day of our stay Clasina wanted to plant three coconut trees on the banks of the pond. (She and Panya had already planted several banana trees below the embankment of the pond.) She put on her farmers overalls which she had had custom tailored as there were none to be found to fit her. I was impressed by this sartorial commitment and had made note of them when I first worked with her at the adobe building workshop. She completed the outfit with a pair of blue boots and an elegant straw hat with black hatband she had bought at the train station. While she was off buying the plants and a piece of pipe to extend the pond outlet, I finished a drawing of the proposed house which she had urged me to do so I could draw my own room on our floor plan and add my ideas for the kitchen. Then she came back to get me so I could document her planting of the trees. Once at the farm I grabbed a bamboo pole to help me walk. (I used this pole all the way to Bangkok noting that it seemed to stigmatize me as an upcountry peasant, but I was not one to care.)

I made my way to the shade of the remaining Longan fruit tree on the bank of the pond. After planting the trees Clasina then went to the water’s edge halfway inside the pond’s cavity to fetch some water. As I watched her attempt to fill a plastic bag with water and turn around to leave she fell upon her hands for her feet wouldn’t move. She was firmly stuck in the mud and laughing at her predicament. The only way she could free herself was by leaving the boots in the mud which she did. I made my way down to look and it was clear that the boots were indeed stuck. The two boot tops looking like the nostrils of a pig emerging from the mud. 

The next attempt to install a pipe to extend the pond outlet to the surface (so we could fill the pond) didn’t go much better and the pipe slipped into the depths of the pond. 

“Well at least no one will attempt to steal it,” Clasina said and we called it a day leaving pipe and boots where the pond had claimed them. Nothing could be done until a future trip.

A Name For The Farm

A few days later back in Bangkok Clasina came to visit me resting my ankle up on a pillow. She wanted to settle on the name for our farm. We had been searching for one since the day we bought the farm and though several sounded feasible they didn’t really stick or some like “Food Forest Farm”  and nearly everything else so obvious was taken. Clasina suggested Green Joy Farms and I offered Wild Sprout Farms and those both sounded good at first, but didn’t past muster with others and didn’t translate well to Thai. 

“Maybe we should have a competition to name the farm,” Clasina suggested.

“Then people will just want to call it the Amanda and Clasina farm,” I said which made me think of our recent adventures and an idea struck me. 

“I know, we can call it Lost Boots Farm.” We both burst out laughing. Certainly no one would have that name already. Plus it was an intriguing name that promised a story behind it. Objects were popular and boots were an easy concept to grasp. We decided to try it out. A notable graphic designer on my FB feed gave it a heart. It was also the first name that Panya responded favorably to she reported. The word for boots was the same in Thai and this somehow incorporated a Thai English sensibility. Thai people like being able to recognize English words. I could see it had a lot of energy behind it which was important for further inspiration. Clasina asked if I was ok with it. Of course I was ok with it. I had thought of it after all. I also liked my other suggestions, but it didn’t really matter as long as the name had staying power. Soon Clasina had a subtitle “Feel the earth under your feet”. “That’s especially for you,” she said. Now we had a message too. 

The night before I left a storm with thunder and lightening brought rain and filled the air with freshness. Rain in Thai culture is considered a blessing and I did indeed feel blessed. 

(Pictures of our adventures on the farm posted at

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Friday, May 17, 2019

International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia


This portrait from the early ‘90s is a rare capture of my butch lesbian persona. Thank-you Warren Hukill. I would show this side of me more often, but the butch lesbian isn’t given a rightful place in Western (European) society; too challenging to the status quo of male power with such a solid example of female autonomy. It is a persona I mute here in the American suburbs because I can. I am privileged with such flexibility. I mute it so people can better relate to me and offer me a friendly reception that doesn’t have to focus on what they perceive to be my sexual orientation. (Instead they focus on how to handle my racial presentation.)

I also mute it to keep the discomfort of straight and straight passing women in my company to a minimum. And I play with the edge of this acceptance constantly. I believe I have these borders dialed in so I can gauge exactly where they are. You likely do too, but not so consciously. I know this because in the past when I asked the question “How do you feel when you are mistaken for a lesbian?” I got the most revealing responses from an adamant “I’m never mistaken for a lesbian” (from a woman with dyke haircut #1) to “I would be less suspected if you hadn’t just come out in the local newspaper. I am after all the one in this office with short hair who plays sports.”

What to me is annoying homophobia (as opposed to dangerous) is the fear of guilt by association. The internalized homophobia of those who fear being seen with me. That to be seen with a butch lesbian is to cast doubt on one’s own status as straight. I am pleased (no utterly delighted) to report though that I have more recently met straight woman who were proud to be mistaken for lesbians whether in my company or not. Because after all what could be cooler than the autonomy, strength and beauty of two women together?

This entry was greatly informed by my reading of the book Transgender Warriors: Making History From Joan of Arc to Ru Paul by Leslie Feinberg which I review on my flickr book review platform here.

After posting my butch picture and the above short entry to FB, Warren tagged me in another image from that era that I'd never seen before or even have any memory of making. Warren preferred his female nudes to display breasts so that's what he printed, but I had chosen to suppress mine with a clasped hands pose that reflects my boy spirit.

The most striking feature about the photo though is that face and those eyes— the beauty of that face cannot be denied. I recognized this beauty at the time to be a gift especially of my Thai heritage. I had in my '20s played it butch with short haircuts but because I lived in the States it just wasn't butch enough in the sense it would have been recognized in Thailand in the Tom world. In the States it just read as American lesbian which was a ghetto that couldn't accommodate my multi-ethnicity at the time so in order to claim the Thai part of me I grew my hair long and lived with a femme presentation.

And attracted bi identified women who were attracted to exotic beauty (as opposed to lesbians searching for someone they could relate to inside the lesbian culture.) I could relate to being bisexual because it shared similar border crossing territory of being bicultural so I could make it work.

But now I am single and intending to remain so which opens up more territory to explore as a person with a visual message to impart rather than as a woman wishing to attract another. I do not have to stay within the boundaries demarcated by someone else's idea of attractive. My territory has become more geographically determined by the local on-the-street vibe and global on social media with our image making tools.

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Monday, May 13, 2019

Celebrating This Body Of 61 Years

I posted this story to FaceBook earlier this month and it received more attention than almost any other post to date. Women rarely celebrate their body in quite this way. At least not very often given women's battle with body image. It was my version of Gloria Steinem's "this is what 50 looks like". (Gloria who is now 85. Long may she reign.) I also wanted people to know that I did not come by this body without attention to its maintenance and a fitness regime. My friends often assume I have an Asian genetic advantage for thinness and natural fitness. This has not proven to be true among my own Asian family members. I also hoped that my story would inspire others to take care of their "earth suit" as one of my mud hut sisters put it as well as staking out ground for a non-medicalized body as much as I can which is to say free from pharmaceuticals. And finally it is a post to celebrate a butch presentation and a female persona that does not connect with the male gaze or any other gaze as I look heavenward for my inspiration. A tripod self portrait.
On my birthday I did this photo shoot to celebrate this amazing body of 61 years. I'd show more, but my channel is PG. heh.
Here's my story: When I was in my '20s I hadn't taken up any form of exercise or sport. I was a proud slacker and only cared about getting to the movies on time. When I was late to a movie and had to run for it I would end up in my seat breathing hard and sometimes coughing. I thought I must be seriously out of shape. So me and my movie buddy took up running the Parcourse which was a new thing then. An outdoor running circuit with stations for doing push-ups et al. They were installed in communities all over. We picked the one that went around Lake Lagunita at Stanford. This improved my stamina and I was proud to increase my reps of push-ups and pull-ups.
A few years in I attended a celebration at the International House at Stanford where it was Asian night and the entertainment was a man and woman from China in silk costume doing martial arts. I fell in love and that's when I started looking for a kung fu class. Once there the movements were so similar to Thai dance that I felt at home, plus it brought back all those kung fu movies I had watched as a child and yes the TV series Kung Fu. The horse stance fixed my bum knee that still bothered me from a ski incident and the exercise improved my lung power further.
Fast forward a few decades later and I am late for a train. Now I have the power to run for it, but I still landed in my seat breathing so hard I was coughing for a good few minutes so I asked my family doctor what I should do. She had me breath a full lung full of air into a measuring device and said I only had a third of my lung capacity, did my parents smoke when I was a kid? Yes my father did from the time he was 12 to the time I was 12. Well there you go, she said, that's why I tell parents not to smoke around their kids. I was so mad at my father.
"I could have been a contender," I said. Then I thought what am I complaining about? I'm already up for my black belt. And I am injury free because I couldn't quite push myself hard enough to seriously compete because I'd end up coughing. The doc told me I had exercise induced asthma and gave me an inhaler to use before exercising. Well that's not going to help if I'm late for the train I thought. I tried it a couple of times and refused to use it. What was the point? Why become dependent on this device and whatever chemicals was in it when I already had what lung power I needed? The doc agreed that exercise itself had helped. Ok then. I don't need to go further than what my lungs are capable of. And it is still my lungs that are happiest when out on the mat being stretched to their capacity. I was now too old to be a contender, but I am still kicking.

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Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Of Visionary Women

My report of the next leg of my farm making adventure in Northern Thailand as it unfolded with all its gifts and surprises during my recent trip earlier this year.

Mae Taeng Province

The district of Mae Taeng is still largely undiscovered being but a stop between Chiang Mai (the Northern capital of Thailand) and the mountains of great beauty at Chiang Dao. Getting off on the side of the road here feels like the middle of nowhere. That’s what I like about it. The existential-ness of it. You have to have a reason to stop here. Nobody is going to crowd you with a ready made program of must see attractions. So our first questions to each other was how to get there—rent a car, rely on public transport, ride motorcycles or start building a network based on our needs. The train station in Chiang Man took care of our immediate needs to get breakfast and buy clothing for the cooler weather which Clasina set about to do at the shop adjoining the restaurant. And soon I too found items to round out my wardrobe—a jacket, pants with cargo pockets, a shirt to shield from the suns rays. Then we looked around for a taxi truck willing to drive us out to Mae Taeng for not too much money which we soon found.

And as there wasn’t really a town center or landmark destination we just got off at the one place we already knew—the government land transfer office. Clasina and I were on our next leg of our farm adventure together—the matter of a lease that would allow Clasina the legal right to develop the land while maintaining my legal right to own it. So we stopped in at the land transfer office to see if they could help us pick such a lease. The woman at the desk who was very helpful and had various leases we could use remembered my name from seeing it on the documents I had signed last time I was there. She had wondered if it was the name of a flower. It means to be loved I told her and then I thought to ask Clasina what her name meant. “The shining one,” she said, “one who would be a leader.” That was very promising for our joint adventure I thought.

Now that I had more time to get to know her I asked Clasina how she came to be in Thailand. It wasn’t exactly a plan she revealed. After Apartheid ended in South Africa the laws were changed to favor the hiring of black South Africans to government positions in all but 5% of jobs and virtually all other industries followed suit. Only family run businesses held any future for young people who were not Black. Clasina explored a number of overseas options including living in a kibbutz in Israel and going to England for training in food services. While in England she tired of the winter climate and asked a travel agent where she could go that was warm. Two options were suggested—Mexico or Thailand and it cost less money to get to Thailand so there she went. 

Before this trip I had listened to Trevor Noah read his book Born A Crime which told me everything I needed to know about Apartheid plus had a lot to offer me in terms of cross cultural navigation. Apartheid wasn’t exactly a history one could be proud of as a white South African and what came after sank into corruption and mismanagement. Clasina hadn’t wanted to stay, she said, because it was too sad. Her parents though remained in South Africa. 

The Thai government isn’t exactly pro welcoming either; they sometimes harass her to test if her marriage to a Thai was bonafide. They found it suspect that she and her husband Ya hadn’t wanted to have any children. She is still awaiting the Thai I.D. card that would grant her land owning rights. I had the necessary Thai I.D. card for land owning while Clasina had fifteen years of experience living in Bangkok and navigating life in Thailand that I was missing not to mention that she was so outgoing she would talk to anybody. She knew how to talk to people here in the North I realized. My high society manners and formality did not play well here. People addressed each with homey familiarity using terms to designate family. 

“Hey uncle” or “hey mother” Clasina would call out in Thai if she needed directions or information while I was left to wonder how to determine who to call what being so old as I was. The farm family we had bought the land from saw me as aloof and snobbish I felt as I waited an introduction or some clue to gather my words together. No introductions were made as everyone already knew each other. I would have to create a more outgoing persona to navigate this I concluded.

Clasina had already booked our accommodations for the night at a guest house quite close to our farm and made friends with the Thai lady who had created the pleasant compound of guest houses. Clasina also had the phone number of a man with a motorcycle with side car to take us there. We had a hot drink while waiting and a local woman dressed for work in Western clothes asked to take our picture. The sight of a blond caucasian woman was still quite rare here. Soon our uncle with the motorcycle side car was there to take us to the guest house where we got comfortable at our little house on the corner of a rice field. Someone loaned us a motorcycle and so it began this building of a network. We were soon at our farm snacking on string beans from last year’s crop.

An English Woman’s Vision

“You must meet Maggie,” Clasina told me and rang her to ask when we could come. Maggie turned out to be an energetic English woman who had settled in Chiang Dao where she had built herself a charming cluster of guest houses with her own hands. She came to pick us up at the bus station in Chiang Dao an hour an a half by pick up truck from Mae Taeng. Maggie had lived in Thailand for 40 years and now at 73 was looking to sell her Chiang Dao guest house which had taken her 7 years to build. She didn’t have quite the energy for the work of a B & B now she said and would go on to build her final home down the road a piece as a co housing endeavor with friends. She was asking 8 million baht for this property—$250,000. That didn’t seem like much compared to California prices. What a gem of a property just to have as a home base. Perhaps money would fall in my lap I joked to Clasina.

The hand made buildings were round and as soon as I looked at the original one that had not been plastered over I recognized the technique from one developed at the Cal Earth Institute in Southern California which I had opportunity to visit when I managed rental property in San Bernardino. And indeed Maggie had hired a teacher who had studied at that institute to come to Thailand to show her how it was done. 

Built with sand bags filled with earth this technique didn’t quite breath well enough in the tropics so Maggie had devised a method of her own filling the sandbags with rice chafe and tying them to a metal structure made from rebar bent into a dome shape. The entire structure was then plastered with mud. This seemed to suffice until over the years the dome roofs started to crack in the monsoon season so she was in the process of putting roofs of thatched coconut fronds on all the buildings as if to give them hats. She now had a charming group of round thatched roof huts scattered up the hillside facing a spectacular view of Chiang Dao. During the high season a steady traffic of travelers seeking a unique experience kept her fully booked.

I liked Maggie immediately. She had missionary parents and had grown up in India. When she told me she had come to Bangkok in the ‘60s I realized we wouldn’t have to dig far to find a connection as that was the decade of my childhood in Thailand. She said she had come at the invitation of her aunt to help out with a school for the children of expats and that the aunt who had helped start this kindergarten had gone on to open a school for older children called Mrs. Clayton’s school.

“I went there,” I nearly shouted. All sorts of memories flooded my brain as I told her how Mrs. Clayton’s school was my first introduction to the West via British culture. I was struck by the serendipitous coincidence of this connection and saw also a kindred spirit. She reminded me of another English woman who had long been a model for me.

“Have you ever been to Cornwall?” I asked her. She had. “Did you visit the Minack Theater,” I asked. She had. The Minack Theater was built by a single woman with a wheel barrow and the help of her gardener as she toiled up the side of the cliff with bags of cement. She had built it for her grandchildren to stage plays during their summer holidays. The result was an outdoor theater with a spectacular backdrop of the open ocean. I took in this site when I was 18 and the story of this one woman vision stayed with me for life. It is still in use as a theater today and is a much loved local feature. Maggie said she had been much influenced by this visionary woman just as I had been. She was such a model of what could be done with simple hand tools, some day to day determination and a vision. I recognized in Maggie’s round houses a similar visionary spirit.

As we were talking a Japanese man and his wife came down the path in full admiration of what she had created here. He said he lived in Portland, Oregon and was himself a designer of gardens for he had designed the Japanese garden in Portland. Indeed I had visited this very Japanese gardens on several occasions. That park was no small feat, covering many acres and was striking in attention to detail. How strange to now meet the designer in Thailand. That he was now admiring the efforts of my new best friend spoke volumes. It reminded me that places like people can be a magnet for like minded spirits as though we were connected by Ley lines to the high energy spots around the globe. 

Clasina was meanwhile taking in our shared conversation and would later ask me what I thought about building our first structure in the style of Maggie’s round house and asking her to be our teacher for the build. Why not? Clasina had been sending me drawings of what she wanted in a farmhouse and they had all included a round tower as an anchor. She had also taken a workshop from Maggie already. Maggie said yes.

The guest house we stayed in was spacious with its high dome ceiling. The round building had character and a great deal of charm. Maggie had also designed wonderful outdoor bathrooms for each one. Her own bathroom had a mosaic tiled bathtub and a squat toilet—a white porcelain one set into the earthen red floor. Clasina tried out the tub laying in it and posing for a picture while I remarked on the toilet style being my favorite. Maggie proclaimed the virtue of the squat toilet for digestive health. She then demonstrated squatting over it and popped up and down with such ease that it was clear that this activity had also kept her spry. Clearly a woman after my own heart. We in the West now know how this position aids in elimination due to the cleverly marketed Squatty Potty, but this work-around would never come close to the benefit of so much squatting.

I told Maggie I would help her get the word out about her property, yet I could see it would call for a very unique and specialized buyer. If I were to devote myself to just one location this one would certainly be spectacular. To see more of my pictures of the Chiang Dao mountain and round houses click here and continue to the right.

The Mud Hut Sisterhood 

While we were in Chiang Dao we only had to go down the road a bit to visit the women’s build in progress that week. The same event where Clasina and I had met last year, but at another location where I had built a house the year before. I had timed our visit to Mae Taeng to coincide with the build so we could visit with our mud hut teachers and a couple of friends I had made at previous builds. 

“Melissa” I called out as soon as I spotted my friend from Portland. She looked up ready to take orders, then saw it was me and gave me a mud specked hug. She was already acquainted with Clasina from my FB posts. As I told her of our plans to build a house she was all in and said she had a list of friends who wanted to come to Thailand specifically to take part in a build. Another woman, Robyn, who had been there last year with us had come again and brought a friend to this build too. She also said she had people she could bring. 

This was all unfolding so easily I wondered if we could pull it together by next January to accommodate such a team. We would need bricks to be made, a place to house people with a dining area and kitchen. The building site would have to be prepared and a cement foundation poured to ward against termites. Clasina certainly seemed eager to begin. When we got back to Mae Taeng we talked to our new friend at the guest house near our farm to see how many people she could accommodate. Sixteen she said if we bunked 3 to a house. Ten more beds would be good for a full team. But she did have a lovely dining pavilion and had once been a cook. So far so good. We had our network. It was almost as if everything we had done on this trip was designed to set in motion the building of our house.

We finished off our trip with another reunion with three mud hut sisters who were attending a four day music festival where they had helped prepare the site by building bamboo structures and sculptures. Attended by young people from all over the world it was a celebration of community that is now a global phenomenon. This built environment providing space for workshops, yoga, natural healing, Thai massage and numerous food booths of international variety while the river running through the park offered a refreshing place to hang out. We slept in rented tents and wandered from booth to booth. At a Ayurveda healing booth a young Indian woman offered to read my fortune with a set of cards each with a photo of an object. I wasn’t sure I needed a reading from such a loosely structured deck, but I consented and drew five cards. One was of a teddy bear, one of a child holding the hand of an adult. I forget what the others were. 

“These three cards indicate that you are entering a time that will fulfill a childhood dream,” she said. That might well be true I thought and nodded in agreement. “You won’t have to do anything. Just let it come,” she concluded. This was even better. “You have something to teach,” she continued. Yes I was all about teaching stuff. My head was a fact collecting synthesizing machine. “Something from your own life experience; about relationships,” she finished. What? What did I know about relationships? She looked up at me as if she herself would like to learn from me. 

“I am writing a book,” I offered “about living sustainably.” She smiled encouragingly. “I can make shoes,” I said showing her my Celtic sandals laced up my calf. She was duly impressed and asked me to come by again, then gave me a hug. 

This easy connection with so many women builders and visionaries was exactly what I was hoping for when I opened the door to this farming adventure with Clasina. I had led a life of long projects considering it had taken ten years to write my first book. I knew well that the journey had to be the fun of it, had to sustain you and teach you your craft. But now I had a partnership and a community. This was new. I felt lucky. I wouldn’t have to do it all. 

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Friday, January 25, 2019

Flashback Friday

While in Thailand I felt compelled to post this picture to remind me of the lineage that is lodged in the memory of this land that I called home. The photo was taken in the garden during a visit I made back in 1977. My boy cousin Thop sitting between my grandmother and his mother (my Aunty Ah Pahdt). Thop still lives here with his family as does Aun daughter of Prayoon the little girl in the lower left hand corner who is now the family cook. She was at the time of this picture the playmate of my girl cousin Pong on the right. Pong lives nearby at her in-laws household.

My grandmother bought this property in the 1930s and built her house here which still stands. She was born into the social class of Bangkok now known as Hi-So short for the English phrase ‘high society’. She spent her life working in jobs befitting her station. At one time for the prime minister in the capacity of receiving and taking care of foreign visitors i.e. Ladybird Johnson and the President. Also Queen Elizabeth and later Neil Armstrong.

She was a devout Buddhist and a philanthropist. She passed along to me her frugal values of living simply. Her original house was never remodeled, just added onto. She had only one child, a son she sent to college in England where he earned a Ph.D in engineering. She raised and educated Ah Pahdt (my father's half sister of another mother) who at the time of this picture was managing director of the alumium blind company started by my grandmother's second husband. It's complex this family you don't need to tell me. heh.

My grandmother's baby sister my Aunty Lily who also lived here was once the managing director of the Bangkok franchise of Polish Ocean Lines which was her husband’s business passed to her at his death. Aunty Lily had her own stylish 60s era house on their parent’s original land (now sold to Bayer Aspirin for its Bangkok headquarters). Aunty Lily lost her wealth to an embezzling manager in the company. Thus my grandmother invited her to come and live on our compound along with her loyal maid Weil and her family.

My grandmother housed the staff, invited them to bring their boyfriends/husbands and sometimes their elderly mothers to live here and helped educate their children. Prayoon's sister Saiyud also lived here while attending college and did my grandmother's bookkeeping.

My grandmother was a great lady in everyone's eyes and her memory remains vivid in all our minds. Late in life she received the title of Khun Ying from the late King Bhumibol.

I am the offspring of a college romance and shotgun marriage to an English lass majoring in psychology. I am called a Look Klueng, a child who is half—half Thai. I was brought back to this household when I was three until my mother migrated us to California when I was ten. My father would further complicate this family by marrying twice more.

At the time of this picture I am still in college and had the choice as I always had of where I would make my home. I was my grandmother’s only grandchild and she loved me to death. A bit too much for my independent spirit and I squirmed away for many years.

I would spend my queer life wandering around explaining myself to everyone who asked because in the West people did ask incessantly until I finally published my memoir “Diamonds In My Pocket”. The book also served to explain myself to myself and make me into a whole person.

I took this photo with my father's vintage Leica on a tripod using a long squeeze bulb gripped in my left hand. This technology already trailing edge as is my habit. We are assembled here on the wall bordering the patio of my grandmother's house.

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Saturday, October 20, 2018

In Sight Of Land

I have waited a few months to give my report on my trip to secure a tiny farm in Northern Thailand back in July. Things had happened to me prior to that that words were failing me to contain or resolve. Somehow all available words I might have to discuss this event had been co-opted to serve a purpose that was no longer serving me. So in the end I had to wrestle the words back and make them do my bidding. I could not make it go away otherwise. A retreat from Trump's America certainly helped to clear my head. I offer that respite first.

My Thai Land

I sat down at the counter of the land transfer office to write my name carefully in Thai script conscious that the government was now under authoritarian rule since democratic elections had been shelved for some 4 years now. Massive protests had forced a corrupt prime minister to step down resulting in a power vacuum that justified a military takeover. During that time the country had been polarized into the Red shirts of the northern rural areas and the Yellow shirts of the urban population of Bangkok. When asked to come to some kind of agreement in order for governance to proceed each side insisted that only their way would do and refused to allow the other any concession. And everyone basically gave a sigh of relief when the military stepped in. 

All the officers at this Northern station had on yellow shirts as if the Yellow shirts had won, but I learned later it was because it was the King’s birthday month and his birthday was on a Monday which in Thai tradition bore the color yellow. Thai culture could be so whimsical in its cultural expression I mused. At least I knew what the colors of the days were from having gone to Thai kindergarten. I was not wearing a yellow shirt. I had on a long sleeve maroon shirt which I hoped would not mean anything. Or if it did would be in my favor.

The officer sitting across from me in her pastel yellow polo shirt watched me laboriously writing.

“Take your time,” she said. I had not expected kindness and warmed to it. We were far from Bangkok in this pleasant rural province of Mae Taeng where I was buying a farm. Behind me in the waiting area sat my farm partner Clasina holding the hand of the farmer’s daughter whom she had befriended on a previous visit. We had not sat together in case her fair haired foreign presence complicated this matter of land ownership. The old farmer himself had already been to the counter with his grandson to verify his ownership of the land I was buying.

After I had signed my form I was sent to the next officer, a man higher up the chain looking perky in his bright yellow polo shirt as if he were on vacation. He looked over the information on my form. A copy of my Thai I.D. card stapled to it showing me in a striped black shirt worn last year during the year of mourning for the beloved late King Bhumibol. Looking at it gave me a sense of continuity with my Thai heritage. The year of mourning had done much to unify the country.

“Do you live in Bangkok,” he asked me.

“Yes,” I said

“Or do you go go/come come,” he said using that cute all inclusive Thai phrase for so many of us now with a foot in the West.

“Yes,” I said nervously, but my answer seemed not to matter too much. He was not looking to strip me of my identity as the officer in Bangkok had who demanded that I produce my parents’ marriage license to prove I was indeed legitimately Thai. He verbally had me confirm my age and address and reaching the bottom of the form signed it. I was done. Grandson and I then paid our share of the transfer tax and I gave him the check for the balance of the money for the land. He did not even open the envelope to look at the check. Then we all got back into his white taxi truck which he drove as an additional source of income. I joined him in the front cab as befitting my status as investor and elder while the others rode in the back. Grandson seemed subdued though he had been quite chatty driving in. Selling land was a big deal for a farmer I suspected.

“How long does it take you to plant the rice seedlings”, I asked him for Clasina had given permission to the family to sow another season of rice on our land since we would not be using it anytime soon.

“One day with ten people,” he said, “then we help to plant rice on each of their farms.” I was floored. Wow. It was still here this barn raising Amish style community work force. Each villager beholden to each other trading their produce and time not for money, but for reciprocal gifts. How secure that would make me feel to have such a community. 

He asked me if I was going to farm organically. And I realized that he saw our venture as a form of technological advancement. The next big thing. Otherwise why would I bother with such an investment. I said yes though it was more complicated than that, but I did not have the words for food forest even though this was now a trend in Thailand, a style of agriculture that the late King had promoted. And not one that had profit as an end goal.

“Have you thought to grow organically/” I asked him

“No,” he said, “it is more expensive and we do not have a market. But you know more people,” he added implying that we would find markets he didn’t have access to. I did not ask how it was that organic farming was more expensive. I wasn’t sure I had enough Thai to understand the answer. I could see he had some regrets about having to relinquish his land as if he had somehow failed and now his son had gone to computer school and his daughter to some other career. At least the land had not been in the family for generations. I would feel bad about that.

Our farm was originally government land, part of the national forest that had been portioned out after the dam was built. Given to the farmers who had been displaced by the government built damn. The reservoir now feeding all the farm plots with cement lined ditches that bordered each plot. The stipulation of the two deeds that now bore my name was that the land could not be used for commercial purposes other than farming. Though we were permitted to build whatever housing we needed. 

I had seen it for the first time the day we arrived. Clasina and I had traveled up from Bangkok on the newly updated express sleeper train full as usual of European travelers. We were met at the Chiang Mai station the next morning by a fellow mud hut sister Jesse a Canadian expat, with whom I had built a house three years ago. She had met Clasina already as she had come by to visit our mud hut build back in January. She had listened with interest as Clasina talked about a farm she was looking at buying. When I told Jesse of our plans to collaborate in buying this land she was happy to have us stay at her house. She too had bought a rice farm paddy and put on it a refurbished traditional wooden Thai house. Jesse was the perfect person to midwife our farm project. She had familiarity with the process and asked good questions.

It was Jesse who drove us to the farm for my first viewing with me in the back of her little white pick-up feeling very farmer like sitting with a bale of hay. We turned off the highway and a dirt road brought us to the farm entrance marked by the opening in the barbed wire fencing. 

“Welcome home,” Clasina told me as she gave me a hand to help me out of the truck. Home. So many meanings that had for me.

As Clasina pointed out the markers at the corner of the rice paddy field below the road the plot seemed smaller than I had imagined until we actually walked it. For our purposes it would be fine. Across the road was the orchard dotted with lychee trees. It was on a slight incline which would be perfect for a homestead. In the distance were the mountains that Clasina had wanted when she was looking for land. They were covered in forests and were sensuous and green reminding me of Hawaii which was ironic in itself since the last time I had looked at land for a homestead was with a lover living in Hawaii. Lucky that  romance didn’t work out and I had come home instead and had this chance to secure a foothold in the land of my childhood. 

Once the deed was done this new status of owning land slowly began to fill me with a sense of a future and kinship in Thailand. I had feared that once the elders in my family had died I would have no reason to come to Thailand. Owning land was a way to make my childhood home meaningful again. It also gave me new friends.

Clasina and I had not run out of things to talk about on the train coming up and we hadn’t even touched on what kind of farm we wanted. She was so cheerful and easy going we traveled well together. With Jesse the three of us shared a congenial time delighting in each others company and lots of girl talk. Jesse in turn introduced me to other permaculture farmers — a young man from Brazil who was co-teaching a class with her, a Frenchman who had settled in Thailand with his Thai wife. I shared with them my tiny house story augmented by a Powerpoint presentation I had put together to share at my last mud hut build. There was an ease here that was restorative in the way these expats shared their perspectives. People yielded conversational ground to each other. I was pleasantly surprised. The conversational style in the US was becoming decidedly unyielding. I sorely needed this respite, for I was now living in a society that was becoming increasingly difficult for me to navigate.

A Nation Divided

Back in the U.S. a nation under a President intent on fomenting a form of white tribal nationalism I knew I would not have an easy time of it and had taken steps to buffer myself from his enraging rhetoric. Meanwhile on the Left I was trying to keep up with what was considered respectful use of another culture’s teachings or group’s symbols and what was a disrespectful appropriation that projected a hurtful stereotype. I enjoyed appropriation of all sorts of cultural dress and symbols for my own amusement just to keep people guessing my mixed race heritage. Plus I am practicing shamanism a spiritual path that may or may not be a cultural appropriation depending on what words you use to describe your spirit guides. People were so busy correcting each other that it was harder to find common ground as less ground was given and less benefit of the doubt offered. We were overcorrecting in a divisive and distracting way I felt. This self censoring restricted creative thought and the imagination when we could be creating a culture we could all inhabit.

Shortly after my 60th birthday I decided to travel to Minneapolis to visit a dear friend I hadn’t seen in five years. She was a tenured professor deeply involved with issues of climate change as part of her work as an artist. So we had much in common to discuss. I had offered to give a talk on the eco aspects of tiny house living to a group she promised would love to hear all about my composting toilet and waste water gardening. And because of our fascination with multicultural influences I added to my talk additional personal information about my background, my privileged upbringing in Thailand and my LGBT coming of age in the US just to showcase the many intersections of subcultures in my life that might have led to my choosing an off grid lifestyle. Being presented as an eco hero already set me up for judgement, but these additional details broadened this potential in untested ways I felt, but I trusted my host.

She also told me how adept the students had become in staking out their own personal identity politics. So much so that it seemed every week a student would be “triggered” by something she said and would vocally reprimand her for using a colloquial term or presentation they found offensive. It was almost a competitive thing with these students since even the mild mannered ones were just as apt to jump on this band wagon. This detail of her teaching life annoyed me intensely as it seemed to be giving students so much power over how information was delivered to them. Weren’t teachers to be respected rather than constantly corrected?

And just as I was wondering what this must be like for my friend I was given a dose of it myself. After I gave my talk to a very polite and attentive all white audience who did not laugh nearly enough for my taste, we went to dinner where my friend picked up a message from her assistant, a grad student, reprimanding her for being so insensitive as to allow me to wear an outfit bearing a symbol that was extremely offensive to her particular minority group. And she was right. In this region it was an offensive symbol.  One I had sewed onto the back of my outfit (a printed logo) in an ironic moment over a decade ago. I had completely forgotten about it and was chagrined to be the cause of my friend’s attack. It took us all evening to discuss the possible ramifications for what most would consider a rather insignificant offense. After which I concluded that she was working in a hostile environment that was becoming increasingly stressful to her whether she acknowledged it or not. And now was causing me distress.

When I got home I spent an hour writing an apology to the offended grad student choosing my words with careful humility hoping for some lenience owing to my being a stranger in a strange land and a guest. She gave me no such mercy, but was quick to give me a label that categorized me and my “people” as ones who would do harm — in effect an enemy. I had never heard this term of hers before and was undone by how it cast me into a ready made narrative. I felt as if my American citizenship had been revoked. She then added that unless I cured myself of my ignorance of the significance of this symbol I was aligning myself with white supremacists. This being now the label for racists with the added implication of intention to maintain white rule. This was a patently ridiculous claim, but the damage was already done. My sense of who I was in this country was scrambled and few hearing the details of this event could help me so intent were they on explaining to me why this person would be so “triggered” (which is why I have purposefully left out the details here. I am extricating this story as one would a splinter. In the hopes of healing). 

Upon my return to treatment my acupuncturist was alarmed by my emotional and physical condition. Not only was I leaking energy at a faster rate than he could restore it, but my confidence in my own narrative was decimated. I didn’t trust that I could convince anyone of anything I had to say or that I even had the right to say it. If students could reprimand professors with no accountability as to the appropriateness of their complaint I had no ground to stand on, no support from these peers.

I was angry, but I also understood the territory. Raising consciousness about racial bias was not a bad thing. It was progress. And though I was not granted forgiveness so I could be made whole again, I forgave my young assailant for her youth having wielded such weighty accusations at my elders myself when I was a student. 

Plus this was not the first time I had been taken down by someone speaking for a minority people in America for when you are the “model minority” you are by your very success in navigating these complex race lines demonstrating that race doesn’t matter in the land of “equal opportunity”. You have “assimilated” and made it work for you. And by your example you have made race a non issue in the eyes of white people. Yet institutionalized racism continues. You are just the exception that proves the rule. I accepted this lesson as graciously as I could. I also understood that while we might be categorized under the same People of Color umbrella, we were not necessarily friends. This made me wary. 

It’s true that as a model minority I am already ahead of the game arriving with a full set of tools and advantages. Immigration laws screen immigrants from overseas culling for the best and brightest just as my parents with their higher degrees were only allowed entry because jobs were already offered to them. The tension of being at the intersection of such class advantages paired with the presence of racial bias in America from the age of ten has shaped me and made me something of an expert on racial narratives. Not to mention being queer and female on top of it. But the Trump era has upped the ante some and racism is now being discussed much more frequently by white allies intent on raising the alarm about the agenda of “white supremacists”. Within these discussions is the hope of eradicating such an agenda. While my non-white contacts were just as apt to post blisteringly anti-white alliance statements. This just increased the tension without offering any possibility of a unifying cause. 

Gasping For Air

In Thailand nobody talked about politics even the expats and nobody asked me what all was going on in the U.S.. While I was enjoying this much needed respite within the peaceful sphere of a news media controlled military dictatorship I had to wonder if I was still up for Democracy. Was not the end result always going to be controlled by wealth stealing the show while infighting fractured the Left? I felt relieved to be in a country where I did not have to work so hard to navigate competing versions of reality. I could mind my own business relieved of responsibility for any outcomes whatsoever. The televised news was so innocuous it was not worth discussing being mostly reports about government sponsored programs around the country doing good for the people. And a good half hour spent on the selection of the day’s lottery numbers. Was this so bad? Much harder to watch democracy self-corrupt and be powerless to stop it.

Still I had to return. And in returning I would have to have a strategy. So I had armed myself with the recent book
Democracy In Chains by Nancy MacLean, something meaty to read while waiting in government offices. I felt that if I could just understand how democracy in the U.S. had been compromised I would have a firmer handle on how to engage in correcting this course and reclaim democracy. The book delivered. The history in it describing the last 50 years gave me the information to see that what was at the core of this mess was a class war being wielded by a white elite informed by a history of slavery. The intent being to take back power for the wealthy and reduce the power of the majority even further. The men responsible had worked tirelessly and persistently to manifest this agenda through controlling discourse in universities, in the news media and in the mouths of politicians. There was no real promise of equality or even a patriarchal promise to do what’s best for all the people. There was just the dangling carrot of opportunity. A premise further fueled by capitalism. This class war was so pervasive and subversive that everyone who has a chance to be upwardly mobile will likely betray those falling behind including those in their own identity group.

The history I absorbed confirmed for me that this was an old battle we could fight with an old school economic social justice approach. It was enough to give me confidence to return yet the struggle of living in Trump’s America would still get to me. The separation of children from parents at the border, white women calling the cops on innocent black people, the enraging Kavanaugh hearings. And every time I thought we might have a movement that would allow coalitions to form I saw bridges burned down by divisiveness. The Left scrambled by an impulse to persecute its own. Feminism being sacrificed just as it was getting a fresh reboot because another group’s issues seemed more just. Coalition building not on the table while everyone reviewed their privilege and challenged each others internalized biases. My dearest friends were enraging me with counter productive approaches. My favorite optimistic writers showed signs of despair. Would America save itself? Would young people vote? I had no confidence in the outcome. Now that I understood the coup that had taken place even before Trump I knew where I stood. But this knowledge did not empower me it just made me feel more helpless. How long before others would see it?

In Sight Of Land

I had been swimming while drowning for a long time. I had sighted land in a far away country that gave me solace. But here in what had been my home for 50 years I was gasping for air. Rage draining my energy. And then more rage at not being able to recover. I told people I was being treated for exhaustion as though it were an ongoing condition. Every time I thought I had my old self back someone would ask me to take sides and the energy would drain out again. I clearly needed a different philosophical interface. I did not want to just retreat from all discourse.

I would rebrand myself as a white supremacist. Not the violent exterminating kind of course, but the culturally appropriating idea bagger of all that humanity had to offer kind. Just as the English language has managed to absorb foreign words and chew down foreign concepts into their deconstructed parts I would unapologetically (with the Queen's English of my birth country) consume all ideas for my own purposes. Move chameleon like amongst every group, scarf up whatever doctrine was being served up, witness it and move on before the group think could get me. Democracy may in the end fail the U.S. but it won’t be the end of human society or even human goodness. I had seen that much.

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Monday, June 04, 2018

Return To Pun Pun

My report on this year’s adobe building workshop in Thailand reveals what appears to have been a blueprint for my current life and leads me into another adventure.

Return to Pun Pun

In 2008 I had been hungry to find a Thailand I knew my relatives couldn’t show me. One that more matched my values than the proliferation of shopping malls that Bangkok was becoming. So I joined a tour and embarked on a road trip to the north eastern provinces in the back of a truck farmer style, sleeping in rustic home built huts and using squat toilets exclusively. The tour was of organic farms that practiced sustainable methods and the new earthen buildings known as Baan Din (House of Earth).

The leaders of the tour were Jo Jandai the founder of the adobe building movement in Thailand and his American wife Peggy plus their son Tan who was maybe five at the time. The final destination was Pun Pun a small farm in the hills where Jo and Peggy had created an educational center to teach the skills of sustainable living. 

In this first phase of Pun Pun the people they attracted had built all manner of natural structures so that it had a whimsical rainbow festival feel to it. One man from Holland had built a circular house on stilts that was open from the waist up. Another from the States was in the midst of setting up a giant filtering system made from stacks of concrete culverts filled with sand, gravel and charcoal. He lived in a tiny adobe house with a roof thatched with coconut fronds. It was big enough for a desk and a loft bed. I recognized it as all I would need myself. 

Other innovations I was introduced to at Pun Pun included toilets that flushed with water into a compost pit, a pee toilet to collect urine for use as a nitrogen source in the garden, soap making, oyster mushroom cultivation and the fermenting of fruit waste to make effective microorganisms for what I didn’t quite understand. Several of these ideas I would later incorporate into my tiny house (including the microorganisms which I now knew to call Bokashi).

At the last build I had attended two years ago our yoga teacher announced one morning that she had just drank her own pee. I looked at her curiously as the remembrance of the taste crossed her face with an expression that told me it was not altogether pleasant but doable. Jo had been teaching about drinking your own pee as a remedy when you were sick and to recapture substances the body made such as melatonin. Well, if Jo was doing it there must be some merit to it I thought. On this trip I would learn that pee could also be used to treat cuts and skin abrasions too. Urea is, after all, an ingredient in plenty of high end body lotions. I tucked all this away in my alternative medicine chest. So much did I trust all that I learned through Pun Pun. 

The Mud Hut Sisters

Since that first trip with Pun Pun I tried to make it to the women's build every year as an investment into what I called my mud hut sisters network. Anyone who would come all the way to Chiang Mai to build a house from mud was my kind of person. At the last build I had made enough friends to visit from California to Portland. Others had become my circle of friends in Bangkok. Last year I connected with two who came to the Bay Area from Australia and China respectively. 

It was an hour and a half’s ride from the city of Chiengmai to Pun Pun by taxi truck. As we pulled up I spotted a gathering of patrons hanging out at what looked like a coffee shop. Was Pun Pun now a resort I wondered? The coffee shop was indeed a new enterprise since I’d been there and it gave the farm a destination feel to it. Inside there were baked goods, herbal farm products, bars of scented soaps and books many of them by Jo—his personal story about returning to his family farm and learning to build with adobe, his experience as a father and even his love life. Too bad all were in Thai. 

A quick look around showed me that almost none of the original buildings were left. They had been replaced after being eaten by termites. Much had been learned in the process and the new buildings had a more permanent and finished look. 

It was unusually cold out. So cold that we were all bundled up in coats and hats as though we were at the arctic and there had also been unseasonal storms. Climate change was afoot. At a nearby mud pit at the end of our tour of the farm we were persuaded to doff our coats and shoes and start stomping the mud. When everyone was in I felt the fun had finally begun. 

I put my arms around the shoulders of women on either side of me and started chanting monosyllables as a spontaneous expression of group bonding. Nobody joined in though It made Ailsa the 10 year old girl resident of Pun Pun look up at me curiously. We had met before. She was a mirror for me sharing with me similar skin tone, dark hair and Asian features. We had worked together two years ago when she joined us for her first build gamely lugging bricks and climbing scaffolding for the entire ten days. Her Scottish mother Lisa was one of our instructors. Her father was from Burma. 

The continuity of seeing her tugged at me. I was ten years old when I left Thailand and so much that I called home, but couldn’t put into words. My memories were somehow embodied in the mud. Mud that in my childhood the local children had taught me to roll into marble size balls with which to play games squatting on our heels on the hard packed dirt. 

A House To Build

The house we were set to build this year was a few kilometers down the road from Pun Pun at a site that would be the next phase of their educational center. Peggy’s brother had already built the first adobe structure which could be seen from the road waiting a final coat of plaster and earth based paint. The house we were building was behind it deeper into the compound. It would be Peggy and Jo’s house away from the bustle of the Pun Pun farm. 

We could see it as we approached. The concrete foundation perched on the edge of a large pond. There were pilings in the water where a pier would be built. It would be two stories high and had a compact footprint with a covered outdoor barbecue area. There were also iron beams instead of wood ones since wood now cost the same as iron. One of the reclaimed doors had a window put into it an unusual feature in Thailand. The house itself had a modern look to it.

After brief instruction our team set to carrying buckets of mud from the mud pit. We then formed a long line to pass the dried bricks that had already been made — with a mixture of mud and rice husk poured into wooden forms. I loved this brick passing line that would only really work if you had a large group of people. It embodied the sense of community I was after. Withe bricks stacked inside we began building the walls in earnest.

The Cat Lady’s Story

A few days into the build just as we were coming to the top of the walls, we finished up early so we could drive to the Cat Lady’s house. This was a woman who lived in an adobe house a team had helped her build in a little village between two rice fields. We sat on the lawn in her vegetable garden as she told us how everyone thought she was crazy to leave Bangkok and come out here to live. 

“If I hadn’t left Bangkok I would have died,” she said dramatically. I could understand where she was coming from. 

She had bought herself a little plot of land just off the road in this village. The house was outfitted with a large outdoor cat cage of cyclone fencing connected to the house with a cat run alongside the top of the wall that let the cats in through the bathroom window. Next to the house a large outdoor kitchen with wood slat walls sat next to the house and behind it the garage. At the bottom of the garden was a guest house; those relatives who had thought she was crazy now liked to visit, but she didn’t want them in the house stepping on the cats’ tails.

As she told her story she mentioned that city people under 50 years of age were the most afraid of the country. This detail stuck in my mind for it put words to my own despair that the younger generations of my Bangkok family no longer valued the natural environment or even connected with it so enclosed were they in cars and air-conditioning. 

I asked the Cat Lady how she got the idea to come to the country. She said it was through her government job that she was sent out to the country and she could see for herself that the people enjoyed a better quality of life. Her story was both inspiring and odd so focused was it on the cats who were famous and had a following on Facebook. It was a rich lady’s story I sensed since she likely had investments that had allowed her to buy the farm. She grew food just for herself and any visitors. 

“They should have told us how the guest house could be an income,” said Clasina who would later become a pivotal figure in my story. We were riding home in the back of one of the pick-ups together. I too had ideas on how to improve her homestead. She had talked of wanting to improve the fertility of her soil yet she was flushing away a perfectly good source of nutrients that could have been had with a composting toilet.

“She’s just a crazy cat lady,” I said, “she didn’t need an income.” And like most urbanites the world over she likely had never considered digging her composted poop into the garden that would then grow food. Even Jo said people just couldn’t seem to get their minds around it and Pun Pun put their composted poop on fruit trees only.

Chosen Family

The cat lady’s observation of Bangkok people haunted me. I was left asking myself why were city people afraid of the country? I knew it had to do with the rapid growth of Bangkok since the ’80s. It was true that we who were over 50 grew up in a Bangkok that still had a relationship with nature living in houses that were not air conditioned with large gardens to play in. Plus TV was only broadcast in the evenings and of course there were no smart phone driven media and games. 

Now city people flocked to the indoor shopping malls and spent their leisure time inside these hyper stimulating artificial environments to get away from the heat and polluted air. With food courts and entertainment the malls contained everything they could want. In 2017 the photo site Instagram reported that out of the the entire world the location where people uploaded the most pictures that year was from the Siam Paragon mall. People taking selfies with the latest status car or some perky pop art display I guessed.

I could see the allure of these entertaining malls, but going into one made me feel like I was in an aquarium with limited air in my tank so much did I want to get away from the materialistic displays.

The two children who lived at my old house were rarely outside even when their cousins came over to play; they preferred playing games on the large screen TV. How could I relate to children who did not play outside? An entire generation lost to artificial indoor environments I lamented.

When I talked to Peggy about it she confirmed that when Bangkok children came to Pun Pun they were afraid of everything and were also clumsy, falling a lot on the unpaved ground; they were so unused to walking on natural terrain. And I could see she didn’t like to say it, but they were also already trained to feel the entitlement of their class and so refused to do things they thought beneath them like washing their own dishes. This annoyed me even more so much did it resonate from my observations.

My dismay sapped my strength and I looked for support. I had on the first day introduced myself to Robyn from Australia who was older than me (by a large margin she said). At the end of a day of building I saw her sitting on the sidelines and I joined her. “Tired”, she asked me. I told her of my despair at my family making me tired. How I didn’t understand their motives. She sympathized and waited until I offered a strategy to cope with it encouraging me in this positive direction. I felt fortified just from being understood.

Robyn had come to the build with a younger woman she referred to as her daughter which further intrigued me when I met Meredith with her butch haircut. Later I would learn that they were not actually blood related which made me curious how Robyn constructed her world. She referred to a partner too disabled to travel. During our chats she told me about her chosen family of daughters in various countries. I was intrigued by this concept. How did one acquire daughters in this manner? Was there a formal bonding ritual? But I did not have the words to ask her at the time. Just the glimmer of an idea that you could create a chosen family.

My Feet Can See

I took refuge in life at Pun Pun. There were many working volunteers to talk to who came from all over the world with similar desires to heal the earth. I tried out the solar shower and favored the squat toilets in their own adobe building in a central location. (Throne toilets were now offered on the other side.) The guest houses did not have toilets so it was a bit of a walk in the middle of the night. I found I did not need my flashlight as there were floodlights shining from various buildings. The paths were well worn and packed down under my sandals. There was only one part of it that was completely in the dark as it crossed a road. As I walked into the dark part I had the strange sensation that my feet could see. This made me curiously happy. For to be so sure footed was a comforting feeling as one gets older. 

The small children who lived at Pun Pun were also sure footed and agile. They enjoyed a free range existence with few toys. They picked up tools as toddlers and learned to use them as they wandered into our work area. They participated in projects and were sweet to each other. It comforted me a great deal to see teenage boys helping out. Tan now taller than his parents was quiet, confident and free from that cockiness and attitude that marked teen boys I knew in the West. He recognized me and we just smiled at each other across the dining hall too shy to speak. On an outing to visit other Adobe buildings I was touched to see Elsa holding the hand of her big brother Jack who towered over her. I could not remember seeing even one example of such sibling affection in the US.

We took our shoes off Thai style as we entered the guest houses and the dining hall. The tables we ate at were low to the ground so we could sit on floor cushions thus avoiding the need for chairs. This spared us the noise of them scraping on the floor. There were a couple of picnic tables with benches at one end for those not able to sit on the floor. This furniture free life agreed with me, with my childhood sitting on the polished wood floors of Thai homes. 

My study of biomechanics and how the body needs a variety of movement had long shown me that you pay a price for the use of furniture with the diminishment of range of motion which led to diminishment of function of the joints. The Asian squat long seen as somehow primitive and feral had been exonerated by biomechanists as vital for proper elimination. The creative marketing of the Squatty Potty having driven this point home on Facebook. 

There were no comfy chairs in this low furniture life. The beds were hard too being nothing more than a 3 inch chip foam block. (Chip foam is what we put under carpets.) This hardness was better for the body I had read in a medical article. For while sleeping the body moves in such a way as to adjust itself, realigning bones back to their optimum position. 

And then I remembered how I had trained my feet to see. After reading Katy Bowman’s book on foot health I had laid a path of loose river rocks outside my tiny house so I could force the bones in my feet to be pushed around as she recommended. The path also allowed me to walk to my freezer in stocking feet. Six months of this had given my feet new found skills evaluating unstable ground. This was what had given me the sensation of innate knowledge, of “seeing”. 

Shoes, especially well padded shoes with all kinds of support, robbed the feet of the opportunity to gain muscle strength. Too ironic that the more we have sought comfort the worse off we made ourselves. Still I piled on three blankets to ward off the cold temperatures of this climate change era. When my roommate from Taiwan asked why there was no glass in the windows in the hall where we did yoga I told her no one thought it would ever be this cold in Thailand. So we wore our jackets to yoga.

My reading on health had further taken me on a tour of our personal micro biome. How the bacteria inside our guts provided services — everything from synthesizing melatonin to affecting our moods. These beneficial and some not so beneficial bacteria lived in the colon. One of the residents who had also just discovered the microbiome herself showed me a root vegetable she had bought in the village called the Yacon which would make it all the way through our digestive system to the colon. We were certainly enjoying such fibrous foods with the vegetable focused meals that came out of the semi outdoor kitchen. Meals made from scratch much of it from the garden. Not a tin can could be seen in this kitchen. My body responded to this non-material, non-artificial environment. If my relatives could not appreciate this it was their loss.

One morning I woke up feeling renewed and happy. Pun Pun had worked its magic on me. 

A Farm Of Our Own

On the last day I said goodbye to Ailsa, not knowing when I’d make it back again or if I was up to another build so tired had I felt. And perhaps the builds didn’t need me anymore now that they were so well attended. The movement to teach sustainable living techniques had matured since Pun Pun established itself. Now there were some 80 such groups and outfits teaching permaculture farming and natural building methods in Thailand alone. The movement was maturing and the participants reflected this change.

Unlike those who attended in previous years looking for something different to do these woman struck me as serious about actually building a house for themselves. Yilin my roommate from Taiwan had moved to an island resort she had loved as a child and had run tours both on bicycles and by kayak. She was now looking for ways to help the locals make a living that would preserve their way of life. Two Thai cousins already had a garden and were interested in permaculture. Syri, a Japanese woman who had trained as a chef, had her grandparents farm to return to. A young Thai woman grew micro greens on her balcony in Bangkok and sold them at a farmer’s market. And then there was Clasina, a South African woman (married to a Thai) actively looking for land to make a food forest. I had enjoyed her enthusiasm and bubbly spirit.

When I got back to Bangkok my cousin was eager to meet with me to make me an offer for my share of a piece of land the family owned where we had had a factory to assemble Venetian blinds. Her offer was enough to warrant my attention, though my stepmother believed it could sell for eight times that value. But all over Bangkok family land lay locked up in such disputes and what good was that? I didn’t want to be similarly waylaid. So I accepted the offer and she  took me to the bank and gave me an envelope of cash so I could feel my money she said and get used to this new wealth. It did stir in me many new thoughts. I had no real need for things, but with this new wealth I had enough to buy land, not in Bangkok of course but outside of the city, a farm even. And then bam it hit me I already knew someone with just such a plan.

I messaged Clasina asking how much was this farm. I hadn’t been paying attention, but she had indeed been looking at a farm she wanted to buy. She sent me a picture of it. There were mountains in the background as she wanted and in the foreground a banana tree and a structure with a corrugated tin roof. The tin roof was my personal symbol of Thailand before globalization. I had used this same material in my tiny house to remind me of this humble past. It captured something this picture; something I longed for. In American dollars it was a mere $64,000; it had sounded so out of reach in Thai baht at 2 million.

How perfect that Clasina lived near my family home in Bangkok. She tutored English for a living and was planning to eventually live on such a farm having collected a garden full of potted fruit trees. I couldn’t yet move to Thailand for some time if indeed that was my future, but I could have the fun of planning it with her and returning to work on it. It would give me a reason to visit and keep up my family ties and network of friends in Thailand. My family and friends grasped this immediately and supported the plan. 

In short order Clasina and I were discussing land deeds and survey maps through Facebook messenger. I committed to returning in July to buy it. I was overjoyed to have a farm with so many friends already living in the area. My mud hut sisters network was entering a new dimension of possibilities. Some wanted to come and do a build with us even. I was excited by all the new things I would learn and do. My mind expanded to take in this new reality and was nurtured by it. My world so much larger now and made more whole.

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