By Conner Carlson – 2 week volunteer
Kindred Spirit offers an especially rewarding experience for their visitors, volunteers, and interns looking to understand a rich and colourful culture that supports the conservation of elephants. The Karen people of Thailand live very happy lives, but their livelihood demands hard physical labour that we westerners may often overlook. I came to volunteer with Kindred Spirit from California, where I am frequently given food that I did not grow myself or even have the awareness of its origin.
The Karen people know exactly where their food comes from, as their rice is grown by their own hands and tools. They truly know first-hand what it takes to be properly nourished and energized, and were gracious enough to allow me to work with them and experience for myself the hard work that goes behind every bowl of rice I eat in the village.The day I worked in the rice field was very laborious but very rewarding. My day started at 6am on a Monday. Waking up at 6am felt early for me, but I slept in compared to my home-stay. I ate noodles and vegetables for breakfast with my home-stay, then we began our journey up the nearby mountain where the rice patties were.
The road up the mountain was rocky and steep. I could only imagine how challenging the journey could be during the slippery rainy season, which is the optimum season for growing rice. We rode about a mile’s distance from the village, weaving through trees and thick brush, to reach the rice field on top of the mountain. Through the trees we emerged to an apparent wasteland of chopped-down trees and dirt. Little huts were scattered along the field, almost a football field’s length apart. The rice field had two distinct areas for growing rice and corn. There was a steep hillside going further up the mountain where the rice was grown, and a flatter area where the corn was grown.Upon arrival, my homestay grabbed one of the bamboo poles leaning against the nearest hut and fashioned me a plow by cutting down the tip of the bamboo to attach a plow head. He made it with a machete in about 3 minutes, which was about half the time it took me to break it on my first run at plowing.
My second plow broke in double the time it took me to break the first, in which someone took the broken plow from me and handed me a bag of rice seeds to plant instead. I reluctantly accepted the bag of seeds and began my new job tossing them into the newly dug holes. Most of the men would dig the holes and most of the women would follow with rice seeds. This process continued for about two football fields’ length of land. Time had escaped from my awareness. We would start planting on the top of the hillside and in a ‘zig-zag’ formation, plant seeds until we reached the very bottom of the hillside, where we would all hike to next portion of hillside and continue the process all over again. After a large portion of hillside was planted with rice, we ate lunch in the huts. Lunch was cooked in two large pots and shared among all the workers. It was a time of laughter and rest.
Lunch was an especially awakening experience for me. As I began eating my rice and stew, I noticed the sweat from my face dripping on the rice in front of me. As I looked around I could see villagers laughing and enjoying their hard-earned meal. It was then that I was awakened to the cost of their nourishment and the appreciation the villagers had for each other. They were very welcoming to me and often asked how to translate certain things in English. I learned many invaluable things from the Karen people by working alongside them, such as to respect one’s surroundings, to laugh, and to not be afraid of making one’s self comfortable with strangers.