Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Mud Hut Building Cure

Details of my trip to Thailand, the political angst therein, my own life path at a crossroads and the all women mud hut building workshop I attended.

To The North

The only people who take the sleeper train to Chiang Mai are tourists, monks and government officials. This Victorian mode of transportation now ranking higher in charm and nostalgia than the faster deluxe motor coaches that ply the new highways or plane for those really in a hurry. I could think of no better way to travel than to be lulled to sleep in my own bunk with panorama window overlooking the rice paddies after enjoying a meal brought to me from the restaurant car. 

On this leg of my journey to Northern Thailand I shared my compartment with a young Czech woman traveling alone. We had so much in common regarding off grid living that I was soon showing her pictures of my homemade composting toilet I kept on my iPod. These days I seemed to have more in common with young people than my own peers. It is the young who realize that our modern Western way of life is no longer tenable.

The women's adobe building workshop I was headed for would draw similar seekers of sustainable living solutions both Thai and foreign. I heard of the workshop through Pun Pun Farms a sustainable outfit I had discovered through the international earthen building network Kleiwerks six years ago. I had already taken an adobe workshop from Peggy and Jo her Thai farmer husband who had brought adobe building techniques to Thailand after viewing the pueblos of Arizona. This cross pollination of interracial couples fit right in with my own world view. Together with the International Women's Partnership for Peace and Justice we would build a house for another non-profit that served to support ethnic minorities students. What I used to know as hill tribe people. Still marginalized by not being granted full Thai citizenship they were also teased by fellow students for their accents and tribal background. And, being far away from home, lacked a supportive living arrangement. It was the aim of this organization to offer such support and thus the house we would build.

In Chieng Mai under the clock tower I was to meet my ride. Beneath the clock two woman sitting at a coffee shop table looked at me expectantly and that was how I met Jeab whose house we would be building. The other woman Nuch, also Thai, was a workshop participant too. Soon we were joined by Tanya, a Russian living in Bangkok and Susanna who arrived by tuk tuk dressed in the traditional clothing of  her home in Malaysia—a tunic over pantaloons—which she would also wear while building topped with a wide brimmed army hat. 

We jumped into the back of one of the ubiquitous red pick-up truck taxis of Chieng Mai and were on our way. Along the way we picked up more Thai women—Noi who had a compassionate face and was retired and Pom a young woman accompanied by her mother who sported a natty pork pie hat. Mother only stayed with us for a day or two, but Pom would throw herself into this workshop with a notable work ethic. Building a mud house was on her "bucket list" she told me later. I soon learned that Susanna was an avid bird watcher as well as a writer. While our Russian companion merely laughed at every question I asked her before finally offering that she was an architect. She would also sleep a great deal. She had not been able to sleep in Bangkok, she said during a meeting at the halfway point of our workshop. Indeed she would soon move to Chieng Mai.

Amidst the Rice Paddies

An hour outside of the city we arrived at a small farm of rice paddies with a humble wooden house on stilts such as my grandmother had lived in, but not quite as big. On the edge of the first rice paddy were two tiny wooden houses built in modified Thai style which appeared to be quite new. It was there that we were to stay and being the first to arrive we had our pick. Without discussion Susanna, Tanya and I settled ourselves in one house and three of the Thai women took the other. The remaining guests would stay in the two houses at the adjoining farm and have a bit of a walk to their meals everyday. 

The farms had been bought by rich Thais from Bangkok, Jeab told me. The flood of 2011 had prompted many city folk to think of investing in both an out-of-town getaway house and a source of organic rice. Now these new houses were no longer occupied as the city people became busy again and did not find time to come so far north. Jeab had arranged with the owners to rent the houses for the duration. She and her crew of Karen hill tribe students had spent many hours cleaning and setting up beds in preparation for our arrival.

Late that afternoon we had our first meeting to learn everyone's name and a little of their story. There was  Lek and I-tim (ice cream in Thai) who were an adorable mother daughter team from the south of Thailand and wore matching outfits everyday. Nodoka from Japan who said this was the nearest mud house building workshop she could find. Sonya from Hong Kong who was a weekend farmer. Ard, a farmer's daughter from Thailand living in the UK and married to a Kiwi. Khin and Wawa two Burmese women. Rung a yoga teacher from Bangkok who would hold our early morning yoga sessions. Non a documentary photo curator living in Chieng Mai. Knot whose good English she attributed to her love of American movies. The quiet but thoughtful Puk. Eh a writer and teacher who taught a class in local self reliance. Lisa an American woman from Chatanooga living in Bangkok and Molly from Sonoma, California whose parents had grown up in Bangkok. We were joined by three Karen girls Om, Pao Chah and Pegk who wore matching brimmed hats of a floral print and our teachers Peggy, Lisa from Scotland who was married to a Karen and spoke a smattering of border languages including Burmese, Jeab, Ginger and her French girlfriend Laetitia. Many of the paying participants spoke of wanting to work with their hands. So immersed were they in modern jobs.

Each morning we would rise for yoga, followed by breakfast, work on the house until lunch, then resume at 2 p.m. after the midday heat. (Later we had to forego yoga in favor of working during the cool part of the day and take a longer lunch.) The first day we learned to make bricks from mud and rice husks with a little sand added mixing it all together in mud pits with our feet. There were already 3,000 bricks ready to go that had been made by Jeab's students so we lost no time making bricks. And were soon laying the first course right on the cement foundation using the mud mortar from the mud pit. Bricks were passed along in a fireman's brigade and mud was carried in sturdy rubber buckets. We all helped each other.

Someone spotted a snake; I saw it too and we chased it into the bamboo grove by the stream. And I realized that I had lost my childhood fear of snakes. That dread that gripped and paralyzed me. Later I remembered the integration work I had done with my soul retrieval. In returning to the land of my childhood in this visceral mud covered way I could now truly inhabit my adult life.

On the second day of wall building, Khin the Burmese woman suggested that I stand on the oil drums to get to the top of
the wall and she would hand me bricks. "I am fat," she said by way of explanation and so I climbed up onto the barrel. On another occasion I worked with Wawa who gamely placed the bricks while I felt compelled to coach her on her technique. And as we worked together we got to know each other.
There were no shirkers. Everyone showed up and did their part. Some with more talent than others, but nothing was so difficult that we couldn't do every part of it. And though I thought that I was working very slowly the walls were going up amazingly fast. At the end of every day we would take pictures of what was accomplished usually with a pair of women in the foreground doing a yoga pose. There was something very feminine about this choice of presentation. And no one had to care how they looked. At the end of the day we washed ourselves and the buckets in the stream using handfuls of straw as a scrubber and then went for a swim in the pond.

Random Angsts of Existence

The temperature got hotter as the week progressed and one day I came to a dead halt halfway down the path to the stream. The 100° heat had leached out every last thought I had and left me with a sort of existential blankness. What exactly was I doing with my life I had been wondering? What could I be doing with my life going forward? But nothing came to me.

Back home the recession had given my business such a pummeling that 2013 was my worse year yet even with the emerging recovery. And my relationship had essentially been stamped expired (though we would continue to make a companionable life together). While some of my long time friends were planning on leaving the Bay Area given that the high cost of living had squeezed out all but the moneyed elite of Silicon Valley. In this atmosphere my life had somehow run out of meaning and my contributions deemed monetarily trivial, nothing more than a series of antiquated analog hobbies i.e. dressmaking, carpentry, bicycle repair, gardening, storytelling in various mediums and now shoemaking. Skills geared towards an obsession with a post-industrialized society that never came. (I had attached myself to this peak oil narrative in order to feel useful until I figured out how to weather old age and die without lingering. Starvation being my choice.) 

Thailand, the country that had given me Buddhist serenity, pride as an uncolonized nation and resourceful self reliance, was in trouble. Some of my contacts in Bangkok used the term "failed nation" in reference to its possible futures. I had come to Thailand to figure out what would emerge from the now five months protests aimed to shut down Bangkok. But the Thais I met had no more clue than I did what would be the outcome. 

The State of Emergency status invoked in February, after some minor violence between opposing sides of the protest, had given me a nice discount on my plane ticket though and the plane from Taipei to Bangkok was only half full, mostly with young Thais. It had been a pleasant time to visit. The traffic in Bangkok was noticeably diminished and the streets devoid of tourists leaving the restaurants and shopping malls half empty. Without the distractions of business, the occupants had been left to themselves to think things over, but seemingly with no words with which to think. 

Graced with the longest ruling monarch in world history—a King so revered that he brought to mind the Dalai Lama—and a political profile largely influenced by royal patronage and marked by military coups, nothing in modern Thai history had prepared the people for the compromises and negotiations of self rule. All that was known was unity under a benevolent King with Buddhism as a moral compass. To be Thai was to be gracious and avoid conflict for karma had determined one's existence and nothing was really worth fighting over—until now. The Thais I knew felt threatened that the Shinawatra family in power  were vying to depose the King as a unifying figurehead while changing the laws to allow ever more concentrated power for the prime minister, currently the sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, who was self-exiled in Dubai to avoid corruption charges incurred during his term as prime minister. In their separate camps the ongoing rhetoric in Thailand was marked by the loud voices of extremists, divisive jokes and insults delivered to each other by a polarized populace favoring different cable TV stations. 

It was in fact not unlike what had become of democracy in America, but at least we had had two centuries of dialogue and history that had offered some sense of what was possible, some agency in this thing called democracy. And we also had state rule which could break down further into city ordinances. The banning of plastic bags from a city was enough to keep its citizens engaged in the democratic process. A process we learn at a young age in the electing of a class president in high school and in the decision making of after school committees. But not in Thailand where such lessons had not existed, at least not in my day, and centralization meant that every last policeman throughout the provinces reported to Bangkok, as did every other government official.

From an economic perspective I saw it as a struggle to transform what was essentially an economy of slavery to that of individual prosperity. For the price of rice on the global market had kept those in the provinces poor. So poor that they had essentially, until the last generation, remained peasants with little hope of upward mobility. This gap between poor peasant and the upwardly mobile city dweller had allowed Thaksin to earn the loyalty of the poor by offering progressive policies (badly executed and straining limited resources). With his ultimate goal being to concentrate power as prime minister so he could further privatize Thailand's resources for his own gain. I was reminded that this ongoing struggle with the pitfalls of democratic capitalism giving over so quickly to corpratocracy was happening all over the world. 

The Hand Made Future

In the heat of our workshop days, I stood on an oil drum looking out into the rice paddies and the hills beyond. All these thoughts of the future pushed to the edge of my mind leaving me with a vague feeling of existential angst. Eh, my building partner for the hour, looked up at me and asked cheerfully in English "What do you need? 

"I'm looking for the meaning of life," I told her. 

"Oh that you can find everywhere," she said with a smile as if it were in the very air we breathed. 

I would soon learn that Eh and I had more in common than I had thought possible—a sense that the solution lay in localized self-sufficiency, a desire to teach others, tarot cards and New Age spirituality. The world having gotten smaller she had just as much access to the same books and ideas as I did. I would continue to be surprised at what many of us had in common—a desire to experience a handmade life, an eco ethic of anti-materialism, a willingness to work together and get along with peoples of all nations. Each day we worked together, ate together and shared living space as we devoted our efforts to this single task of house building. 
Photo by Lisa Thom

By the second day the walls were finished and on the third we installed the doors wedging them in with a cob mixture of mud and straw. Once the windows were installed we could plaster the walls inside and out then apply an earthen paint. All in 8 1/2 days with few tools and the hands and feet of 30 women.

In the evening we would gather in the dining area under the main house where the wifi signal was and log onto Facebook. Facebook had become so ubiquitous that we were all thoroughly addicted, eager to post our updates for the day. It was the only thing about our little community that I questioned. Here we would work together all day, but at night we still wanted to trade comments with people back home. I missed the distance I could get by leaving home. I missed the long discussions I remembered from evenings at previous workshops and the visibility of books everyone was reading and how both created a group understanding of emerging new perspectives. That was only five years ago. 

By the middle of the workshop we had begun to friend each other on Facebook. And with all the tagging and posting pictures of each other, I no longer felt a need to report anything since my friends at home could see me happily posing with all my new mud covered friends. I could wait to report my experience and give it the perspective of time. This skill left largely undeveloped by so much breaking news reporting. Only Susanna with her feminist training and writer's mind could beat me to these bigger perspectives which she now applied to the story of the missing Malaysian airplane duly analyzing all the speculations and conspiracy theories in terms of our own wishful thinking. Some even checked their phones at the building site. When one of my Facebook contacts watching her stream came to realize that a childhood friend from Chatanooga was in fact attending the same workshop as I was I was duly photographed and posted as proof. This coincidence somehow leaving me unimpressed; so often did this happen these days. Facebook, which had been my life for two years, was now somehow an ersatz reality next to our daily immersion in mud. Mud that I spread over my skin instead of sunblock. "Clean dirt" I told Lisa from Chatanooga who did not like getting her feet dirty. Every day I washed the mud from my clothes and dried them on the line.

In the last two days of the workshop we adorned our building with feminine touches. Jeab pressed ceramic medallions into the walls—round tiles painted with floral motifs. In the front bedroom Knot and Rung created vines of cob plaster climbing the walls. And on the curved walls of the exterior Tanya, our Brutal Russian artist as she called herself in a photo caption, fashioned a full size tree out of rocks and colored tile that she labored over to the end when we had all packed our bags. 

In the wrap up at our last meeting it was obvious that people had been profoundly moved by the experience. Awed that we had managed to complete a viable house in so short a time for people we knew who would actually live in it. Wawa said she was surprised to discover her own strength and ability though she had never done such work. Lek commented that she was now confident that her daughter could look after herself in the world. Om, one of the Karen girls, thanked Molly for teaching them to swim. And Molly offered thanks to the earth and the pond, the cooks and everyone who had made the workshop possible. Nodoka was so overcome by emotion she could only offer a syllable then gave up. Khin mentioned that she had worried about her sick puppy at home, but had enjoyed learning to build. Tanya said that she was not normally impressed by non-professional architectural work, but in this case she was. Susanna spoke of how so many of us likely came to this workshop with unresolved problems and issues, but in this community experience together, we would likely go home and find some shift had happened. This prompted me to say that I had already benefited and been filled with hope for Thailand after seeing how so many from disparate classes and levels of experience and education had been able to work together in harmony. I had made many friends with my little dances during the break, my yearning in Thai for barbecued chicken and my confidence at building. 

When I got home to Bangkok I showed my Auntie Ah Pahdt the pictures of the house being built; she already knew of the
coolness offered inside an adobe building and she told me she had bought land in the very same province where the workshop had been. This seemed too serendipitous to be mere coincidence.

"Would you like me to build you a mud house?" I asked her ratherexcitedly. She didn't say anything but she did seem to hear me. My hands, already hardened by a lifetime of making things, were burnished like polished wood from the textured mud; my feet too had benefited. Mud hut building agreed with me. The weight of the bricks and the stickiness of the mud had worked its way into my tactile memory so firmly that I would think of the house as a part of me and I of it when I saw pictures of the roof being put on after we had left. The profound satisfaction of having done something real lingered with me. I could well imagine building more houses. 

Three days after I got home to California I had my Honda wagon loaded up with about ten boxes of books from a client job. Driving home in stop and go traffic I had to slam on the brakes as the SUV in front of me stopped at a light. But my car was so heavy it skidded into her bumper dislodging her muffler and leaving the hood of my car a mess. After we pulled over and exchanged information I wired her muffler back up for her, but I knew my car was toast. It was too old to be worth fixing though I had before gone to great lengths to keep it on the road as part of my frugal stubbornness even after Catherine had offered her Prius to me to drive (after she bought herself the new all electric Leaf). But curiously that little bump seemed to detach me from everything I thought of as my identity and my life. I saw clearly that all aspects of life were temporary and I would benefit from treading lightly. 

Just as Susanna had described I did feel a shift in my personal landscape. A restoration perhaps of the serenity and grace I had grown up with. Somehow the house that was now a part of me and my own labor on it in the climate of my childhood had cured me of an existential homelessness I had felt since I left Thailand at ten. I felt curiously light of being. It no longer seemed important what stories people were telling or the counter stories I told in self defense. My world had expanded and I was able to detach myself from the many narratives I had been wrestling with and replace it with a globe trotting, mud hut building sensibility that restored my self-value and opened up a miriad of possibilities. I returned immediately to my shoemaking and a little gardening. And soon missing my new friends I watched them on Facebook.

Photo by Jeab Sena

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At 6:31 AM, Blogger danielle said...

This is a beautiful post Amanda. You're a great writer! Thanks for sharing :)


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