Monday, January 26, 2015

Sahai Nan: Away Laughing on a Fast Camel

Thanks to a recommendation from my sustainability gurus Kelly McGlinchey and her sister, Thea and I decided to spend time volunteering for a permaculture project in northeastern Thailand called Sahai Nan. (Follow along with the development of their project at www.sahainan.com). Sahai, which means "friend" in Thai, is the grandson of a Thai shaman and did not realize that his way of living as much off the land as possible with clever energy and matter recycling designs had a catchy term in the West: "permaculture." When a visitor offered up this label, Sahai re-branded his project and started a permaculture course that mostly attracts Westerners interested in starting their own farms or yearning to live in greater harmony with nature -- eating from one's own vegetable garden, using energy from the sun, even harvesting fresh medicines from herbs and plants. In addition to teaching foreigners (who can volunteer or take a course), Sahai is also committed to inspiring his neighbors and interested local people to live more sustainably, as he has seen more and more monoculture farming, deforestation, and other destructive practices become popular in Southeast Asia.

The Thung Chang project that Thea and I visited is only 4 months old because Sahai was compelled to close his former project near Pai due to heavy tourism scaring away wildlife as well as drawing too many "happy hippes" as he calls them, or volunteers more interested in hanging out in a hammock on a farm than getting their hands dirty. In that short time, Sahai has already built several small bungalows for volunteers:

...part of his own house for him, his wife, and the baby on the way, and this beautiful main kitchen/dining room area:

Let's zooom in on the dining room table, where we enjoyed delicious, organic meals together cooked by Sahai's Chinese-Malaysian wife, Shen, and, as she proudly noted, sans the MSG or fish sauce ubiquitous in most Thai street food:

Most meals featured spicy curries or stews with mustard greens from the garden, sweet potato or pumpkin, and eggplant sopped up with the all-important sticky rice; dessert would be a simple but satisfyingly sweet papaya or banana.

On the farm, we worked on a wide variety of oustanding projects, such as a bamboo bridge to cross a stream bed. Bamboo is an incredibly strong yet flexible material found in great abundance in Thailand, and was a crucial material at Sahai Nan. Bamboo wood was used for walls, floors, roofs, utensils, brooms, even as durable "string"! Sawing through bamboo was much harder than I thought it would be:

Or gathering rocks to build a clay oven:

But with Sahai's ever-present, radiant smile and mantra of "we have time," there was never any rush or reason to shortchange relaxation or bonding time together, whether chatting, playing music, or doing yoga. Thea often spent the early morning hour before breakfast journaling to this mountain view, while I explored calf-burning running routes up and down the hilly dirt roads:

The mountains in the distance mark the Thai/Laos border.

I felt very lucky to celebrate my 24th birthday at the farm, surrounded by peaceful nature and an inspiring group of people committed to caring for the world in their own unique, thoughtful ways. A Portuguese couple who live on a permaculture farm/communal living project serenaded me with their community's birthday song: "Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to me, every day we are born, every day we are free."


Thea spent the afternoon in secret preparing this goregous coconut sticky rice birthday cake, a veritable work of art: 

Needless to say, it was hard to leave. We ended up staying 10 days rather than the original week that we had imagined. I left feeling most inspired by Sahai's 100% commitment to pursuing his dream, no matter how much work it demands of him, and living in a way that he believes in, despite lying outside many social norms and notions of "success." Often I get wrapped up in questions of how to make big impact, systemic changes to better our environment, but Sahai Nan was a humbling reminder of the power in bravely setting an example with your own life and sending off the small ripples of potential and inspiration from there. 

I leave you with Sahai Nan's 12 Principles of Permaculture, which I find as resonant for farming as for your day-to-day life:
1. Observe and interact
2. Catch and store energy
3. Obtain yield
4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback
5. Use and value renewable resources and services
6. Produce no waste
7. Design from patterns to details
8. Integrate rather than segregate
9. Use small and slow solutions
10. Use and value diversity
11. Use edges and value the marginal
12. Creatively use and respond to change

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