Updated: Feb 25
During my stay in Thailand, the last farm on which I volunteered was in a village near the Laotian border. After such a lovely time spent with the Karen people in their Northern villages, I was excited to experience another Thai culture. In this village more than any other, I would develop relationships with the children.
Two other volunteers and I stayed with a family in Huag Pan. The houses here were more modern than the Karen houses I'd previously visited. Unlike the Karen structures, these houses had walls and doors, but they seemed to exist mainly to keep out the chickens and the elements. Every morning, the doors and windows would be opened wide, and left that way all day as long as someone was home. Just like in the Karen homes, neighbours, both young and old, would walk in to visit. Knocking at the door was unheard of. Doors would only be closed during bad weather, when there was no one home, and at night. That's it. If we were sitting on the mat eating a meal, a visitor would simply walk in, sit down, and join in. I'd made friends with the neighbourhood schoolchildren, and they, too, would frequently visit just as my hosts would have visitors.
There were five volunteers staying in the village. We would work on the farm during the day, and in the late afternoon we'd join the village children who were swimming in the river. The teenagers would hang out together, but they'd be watching over the younger ones. Most were quite friendly with the volunteers even though only a few of them spoke a few words of English.
The largest project I helped with while I was there was the building of a compost toilet. With our hosts teaching us as we went along, we took turns digging two deep holes, then erecting bamboo framework and covering it with a mud-straw mixture. Our hosts worked on the project as hard as we did, and the neighbourhood children were always welcome to help us. They were learning and contributing, just as the volunteers were. They were a valued part of the crew.
Unlike North Americans, Thai people are not squeamish about insects. A number of of them were edible, even delicacies. Cicadas seemed to be the most common. In the late afternoon, I would often see children hunting for cicadas with makeshift nets, a plastic bag in hand to hold their bounty. I joined them a few times. Cicadas move quickly, and I was surprised at the difficulty of the activity. The kids were skilled, and would catch a close to a dozen in the time it would take me to catch one. But they seemed to enjoy having this clumsy foreigner join in with them. One afternoon, my ten-year-old fellow cicada hunter gestured for me to follow him. I followed, not knowing what he was up to. I was led into a rustic kitchen, where some boys proceeded to fry up a batch of cicadas in a large wok. With my North American mentality, I was at first concerned about these children cooking without any supervision and thought that they would get into trouble. I couldn't express my concern because of the language barrier, so I simply observed. I came to recognize that these boys weren't sneaking around while the parents were out. In this community, their behaviour was appropriate and acceptable. My friend Dorota would say they were "free range": they knew their boundaries and had the skills and freedom to cook up a snack without adult supervision.
This contrasts sharply with the schools where I taught in Winnipeg, where there were so many rules to be followed. I remember reciting all the rules of recess one year on the first day of school. When I finished going through the long list, most of which all started with Don't, one of my students remarked, “There are a lot of things we're not supposed to do. What are we allowed to do?“ Ouch.
I hope that Prairie Rivers Cohousing will be a place where children will have the freedom to explore new possibilities, learn new skills, have responsibilities, develop relationships with people of all ages, and know that they, too, are a valued part of the community.