The secret diary of a volunteer

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First impressions of the place are that it is a lot more ‘civilised’ than I had previously imagined. The village is a similar size to what you would expect at home, with proper roads, a school (from which numerous children shouted ‘hello’ when we arrived with a remarkably good English accent) and electricity (although not necessarily reliable, as we found out!). Once we had settled in, set up our mosquito net and had a bite to eat, we just relaxed as a whole group of 11 volunteers for the first time before bed (misleadingly just a wicker mat on the floor).

First day on the grind

Having picked up our hoes (I named mine Roberto), we walked the 4.5km up the hillside flanked by farmland to the source amongst the banana trees and jungle vegetation that characterise the tops of the hills in the area. The source was just as I imagined, a small spring at the top, channelled into a concrete reinforced basin.

We dug all morning, making excellent progress primarily thanks to many Karen village volunteers who are very impressive and highly efficient with a hoe! The locals carried on digging the trench for the pipe after lunch while we went back to start covering the pipe that had already been laid. However, shortly after 2pm the heavens opened. Torrential rain continued for about half an hour, but fortunately three Karen ladies called us under a small bamboo shelter that they use for this exact reason when they’re working the fields. Given that their knowledge of English was just as limited as our Karen, the communication was very limited but that didn’t stop us having a laugh, primarily them laughing at Reece have a waterproof cover for his backpack but not for himself!

Once the rain stopped, we carried on hoeing and completely 1.25km by the end of the day. The drive home was one of the best parts of the day, in the back of wet and muddy pick-up truck down farm tracks and roads approximately 10mph faster than would be comfortable!

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Second day

(…) We went to another house on stilts for lunch and Meechai Noonswan (John), one of the Karen who we befriended, brought us some freshly picked berries of some variety. We still don’t know what they were, pinkish skin covering a white fruit flesh over a black stone which looked eerily like brain. They were rather sour.

We continued hoe-ing all afternoon when Will, Lee and Nootsabar who had come to check on our progress. After giving them the low-down of our experiences so far, we walked the 2.5km back home where Vicente did his best to cook us some traditional Ecuadorian food using Thai ingredients! This was followed by a language exchange with John attempting to teach us Karen (and catching and feeding us grasshopper that he cooked over the camp fire!) in exchange for some English lessons. I was not very successful, although I can now count to 10 in Karen…

Der, key, ser, luis, yeah, hwo, nuit, hwohk, qui, dichi! (or something along those lines…)

Fourth day

We finished hoeing early today, primarily in the name of football. We went over to the playing field and stayed there all evening, initially playing with a sea of 5-10 year olds who immediately crowded anyone who had the ball. We all had the best time. The game, gestures and enjoyment allowed us to communicate with them despite the age gap and language barrier. When the game was over and the children left, the Hmong team came over wanting to play. We got thrashed and left shortly after!

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Fifth day

The last of digging the pipe trench already! We followed the unruly plough (a single furrow contraption with a petrol engine that goes flying off in all directions if you don’t hang on tight enough!) up the hill to where the storage tanks will be located. We then unloaded all the rocks out the back of pick-up which would make up the foundation of the tanks. The Karen were stunned by our incredible rendition of the entire Bohemian Rhapsody, which kept us all in time as we passed the rocks down the line.

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Sixteenth day

We ate traditional Thai food they had cooked for us- although “white man” Thai as they had removed all spice to accommodate our weak western taste-buds! After dinner we went up to the neighbouring old lady’s “balcony” and Jason taught us and the children to make origami cranes.

We were then called downstairs to stand around the table. The tribal elder made a speech translated by Taku, thanking us for all our hard work and help and blessed us for life in turn. We were each kindly gifted a traditional tribal Karen top, ornately hand stitched with thousands of beads and tassels. They are beautiful. We thanked them for being so welcoming and had our photos taken with them all, all the Karen women hugging the girls in gratitude and the men joking around with the boys. It didn’t matter that we couldn’t hold a full conversation due to the language barrier. The fact we had been working with them, living amongst them for the past few weeks was enough to make the party comfortable and thoroughly enjoyable.

Last day

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We headed back to the house quite solemnly, packed our bags in the truck said “Ta bleu” to all the villagers and goodbye and left. As we drove out the village people waved from there house and a group of the children outside the school waved and shouted their goodbyes. I thought I’d be glad to leave, to sleep in a proper bed, have Wifi and proper bathroom facilities again, but it was a sad goodbye and was surprised at how emotional I felt about leaving our home for the past few weeks.

This was not the end though. We had a night in the luxury of Ban Farang guesthouse, a lovely meal out with Will, Nootsabar and the rest of the KHT staff and then a jungle trek to look forward to. The staff treated us to a long weekend in the jungle, a spot they go to for hunting and camping trips and showed us the real jungle experience. We stayed in a bamboo lean-to. Nothing but a mosquito-net and bamboo leaves for shelter, showering in a river and cooking on an open fire. We went fishing, tried our hand at shooting, trekked to the Myanmar border and swung from vines. We drank home brewed rice whiskey and rice wine (which is lethal, as some of us found out…), ate wild rat, mole-rat intestine and freshly caught crab and shrimp. The perfect way to unwind as a team, along with the KHT staff who we could see really came into their own in their own “natural habitat”. The perfect end to a trip which had tried and tested us, tired us out and terrified us at times. But the experience also inspired us, taught us more about ourselves and another culture than we thought possible and I would do it all again in a heartbeat. KHT really do make a difference, as we saw on the faces of the 800 strong Karen people in Ban Pang Tong who now have enough clean, safe water to live on. Incredible.

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 Louise - Water project, 2016