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To Thailand with Habitat for Humanity

by Marie Johnson

Water ran out on our ranch Oct. 1. Irrigation rotation is officially over Sept. 30; with no water on the place to worry about, both boys away to college, cows content eating the grass still growing in the pasture, we asked the neighbor to look after the dog and took off to Thailand.

We went to join Habitat for Humanity, a group of 15 other individuals from the United States and two Australians, to work in a village in northern Thailand, outside the city of Chiang Mai, to build two houses in less than two weeks. When I applied to Habitat’s Global Village Build on my application for special skills I wrote I lived on a ranch and knew how to work a shovel. I got accepted. My husband was interviewed also. A capable civil engineer with a strong back and flexible mind, he was accepted too.

In the first two weeks of October we were to build two cement block homes with a metal roof and concrete floor. We dug holes for round concrete sections, totaling two meters high for the homeowners’ septic. Shovel skills really shined there. We tapped down dirt, carried rocks, gravel, sand, and a runny mortar mix in black plastic buckets for days. We worked in heat and humidity where we did not perspire, we did not sweat, water just ran out of our pores. We had a great time.

The village people helped as well as watched us as we watched and tried to mimic their skills at building with cement blocks, rocks, sand, mortar, dirt, shovels, black buckets and bamboo. The local craftsmen, who were area farmers, made rebar out of bamboo, scaffolding out of bamboo, shovel handles, brooms, bamboo was their duct tape. They thought we were a hoot. We sweat so much, eat so much and talk so much, yet the houses got built. I got comfortable with stray dogs and chickens running around while I ate my lunches of rice, morning glory vegetables, fried eggs, pork or chicken and drinking yet another gallon of bottled water.

The whole area had so much color, so many strong exotic smells pleasant and dubious, so many bare feet, as well as smiles and laughter at attempts at pantomimed conversation. I thought this build would be a pinnacle of adventure and accomplishments but no, the best was still to come at the end of week two.

The brick and mortar houses were turned over to two women selected by Habitat on Wednesday of the second week. The women earned, by making handcrafts, about $5-7 a week. Each had a daughter about 10 years old and each was very grateful and teary to receive the 20-by-20-square-foot home. Pride of involvement crept inside my head for a minute while our team leader presented the homeowners with a symbolic key to each of their new homes. These houses had no doors or glass in their windows. Guilt knowing luxuries like running water, indoor plumbing, indoor electricity, and a cooking range existed in my own home quickly chased pride right out of my head.

But the guilt didn’t last long because bright and early the next morning Habitat loaded our building team into vans and took us to the jungle to stay for three days. It was a rustic place populated with elephants.

Within the hour of our arrival at Thailand’s National Elephant Conservatory in Lampang our team was climbing up on elephants with commands to stop, go, turn, and go straight, on a small laminated card in our hands.

For three wonderfully exhilarating, never to be repeated days in the United States because of liability insurance alone, we rode, bathed, fed, gathered from and returned to the jungle every day, our elephants.

I was able to use my shovel skills at the conservatory brilliantly, cleaning up elephant dung to be processed into paper, with a huge smile plastered on my face the whole time. The elephants left an impression on me. I have over 500 pictures to prove it. Contact Habitat for Humanity tell them the elephants sent you.

n Marie Johnson is a Carson Valley rancher and has now ridden herd on an elephant.