Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

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 other 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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At 9:38 AM, Blogger Ann said...

Another wonderful article! Thank you for sharing your writing and experiences over all these years.


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