Category Archives: volunteering

on traveling and relationships, part 2

The farm reminds me of the Camino, both because of its natural beauty and also because of the depth of my relationships formed here. I think the internet has ruined us, as it’s been the long days of disconnection that have caused the best conversations and closest friendships during my travels.


There are some couples on the farm that are giving me renewed faith in relationships. They perfectly compliment and support each other, but are also independently whole. And even when separated—which they are completely comfortable doing—you can see the unconditional love they have for each other.

This is what I'm waiting for.


One of my favorite things about traveling is how short interactions with people change. I've stopped worrying about how people perceive me, instead I just always do and say what I want. If I do something embarrassing, I never have to see that person again, if I don't want to… there is such little risk.

The downside is that if you do want to see someone again, it's more difficult to keep them.


I've used the word love a lot since I left but if I'm being honest, I'm not sure when the last time was where it really would've applied.


the river is everywhere

I watch the former monk spoon-feeding a French baby from his own bowl during silent breakfast and I can’t stop smiling. This slow, calm, giving lifestyle is full of unexpected beauty.

I want to keep this mindfulness that I am cultivating. It is about living in the present, acknowledging the thoughts we have in our mind but sometimes letting them pass. The past, the future—these are things that we should not dwell on when there is so much right in front of us at this very moment.

This morning—my last morning here at the farm—our teacher tells us the goal, and it is everything I want.

“No serious. No angry. No sad. No lonely. No depressed. No confused.”

But even before I board the bus back to Chiang Mai, I feel the hurriedness and worry of city life begin to creep into my thoughts.


sat nam

“No talking. No reading. No writing. No thinking.” And with that, I am left alone in the forest for 12 hours of Vipassana meditation—on exactly the date of my fifth month away from home.

I am volunteering at an organic farm run by a former Buddhist monk, and so far I’ve found that living a simple life takes a lot of work.

The goal is to always be mindful—live in the present, be conscious of our effect on the earth, gain control of our thoughts and emotions.

I am really bad at all of this… which is why I think this might be really important for me to learn.

So I am eating vegetarian, doing yoga as the sun rises, sleeping under a mosquito net protected by more or less two walls, waking up to a view of gorgeous misty mountains, meditating each night by candlelight, and working on shutting off my brain and giving the worrying a rest.

(Oh, and there’s a little bit of gardening thrown in there somewhere.)

And while at first I was a bit judgmental of the hippie-ness of the other volunteers sharing the farm, now I am finding them some of the most interesting people of my whole trip. They are passionate, informed, self-aware, worldly, giving, and they are always working on improving themselves and everything around them. This is the perfect environment for growth.

When I am volunteering, I usually wear my glasses. This morning during silent breakfast I took them off to clean them on my shirt and everything looked clearer after. I think this farm is doing the same thing for my mind.


alternative travel

“You don’t like to do things the same way as everyone else.” A Columbian boy tells me this when I decline his invitation to take the bus with him to the next backpacker town, choosing instead to spend another week where I’m at in Chiang Mai, training Muay Thai at a local gym, with future plans to stay at an organic farm run by a former monk.

I guess he’s right.

But it’s hard sometimes to find meaning when you’re traveling for a long time, and slowly the hostels and bars tend to meld together the same way the churches and museums and temples do. Sometimes you’ve just got to break out of the mold.

And people are weird, often paying ridiculous prices in order to experience extreme discomfort in the name of authenticity. My touristy elephant trek brought us to a “local” village overnight that sold overpriced beer… it was nice, but being woken up by the rooster in my open bedroom at the orphanage and the meals cooked for me by teachers at the high school will be what I really remember.

I’m still a tourist, and I’m okay with that. I think there’s a reason why some things are popular. But I’m still not planning on changing my strategy any time soon.



There are eight of us here now, which changes the vibe of the orphanage. With so many volunteers, it seems almost like a tourist attraction and I sometimes get that sneaking feeling that I am being scammed.

I’m not, really, because I love these kids and the cultural experience, plus this is an equally beneficial career move for me. But I am paying three times the price of a local guesthouse to be here—yes, I am basically paying to do work, and I don’t really like it, but obviously there’s a market for it. And I know the money is (mostly) being used to support the kids… but still.

I guess it’s a fine line. This is a tiny project, just one family who has chosen to basically adopt a dozen children in need. And the German woman in charge has completely given up her former life as she knew it—her years of schooling as a psychotherapist, her family back in Europe, her freedom—something that I know I would never be able to do. But does the money undermine the good deed? Where does necessity end and greed begin—for her, and for us volunteers who are really just selfishly intruding on her family for tiny slots of time?

And there are so many of these projects out there, of various sizes, for various costs, and probably with various levels of corruption. So how do you judge? And what’s the best way to help?


slow down

I pick up two of the littlest kids from school and load them on my bicycle—one standing over the back wheel and the other perched in front of me on the handlebars—and we start the shaky ride back home. We giggle over the bumps and shriek down the hills, their arms wound tightly around me the whole time.

Near the field by the house, they beg me to stop, and we search the side of the road for discarded pieces of raw sugar cane. As they happily wander about, I hear myself impatiently hurrying them along… and then I think, why?

What am I always so desperate to rush off to? Why shouldn’t I take my time, and why not examine the treasures left behind by others?

I read this article last year, when I was still working around the clock and my students always mocked my repeated urging of “C’mon, c’mon! Let’s go!”

I don’t think I really understood it until now, though.

When we finally get home, I spend an hour hacking away at sugar cane to get to the juicy bits in the middle and there is nothing else I would have rather been doing.

“I will not say, “We don’t have time for this.” Because that is basically saying, “We don’t have time to live.””


everybody jump, jump, jump

I think I might have food poisoning, which has definitely killed the charm of the squat toilet and diminished my patience for the scampering little feet and the beckoning loud shrieks.

It has also made me long for home, the way being sick always has. I remember being sick at university once and whining to my mom on the phone, only to learn that when my older brother felt the same a few weeks earlier, she was able to drive to his school and do all his laundry.

I have always lived too far away.

So I’m thinking that maybe I would like to settle down closer than a 26-hour drive from my family. It’d be nice to actually celebrate birthdays with cake, to catch up without worrying about having a good signal, to be able to go home on a whim.


Here’s the thing about a job like this, which I know all too well: it consumes you.

Especially here, there are no sick days, no playing hooky, no vacations. And there is no showing weakness—you learn to never be tired, or bored, or scared because you’re expected to be the rock through all of it.

And really, in a job like this, you want to. Even on the days when you feel the worst, you know how much worse it is when you’re not there. I have gone to work with a cold, with allergies, with a hangover, with a broken car window, without a voice, without a plan, without enough sleep.

I’m not sure if I’m ready to go back to that life. The early mornings and constant anxiety, putting my work ahead of everything else in my life.

But then I find myself here:


…and I never want to leave.