Next week, I'll be returning to Lampang, Thailand after 12 years. Yo-Yo is still the song-tel driver, and the team leaders I had on that fateful journey are now the local hosts. In August of 2011, I took an intensive writing class with Victoria Rowan. I wrote 2500 words a day, took a lot of criticism, rewrote and rewrote and rewrote, finally finished my Grad school essay and mapped out a book. This is by no means a finished product, but I wanted to share it with you to commemorate my first build - a trip that inspired me in so many ways - and why this blog began.
In February of 2004, I had to make a last minute business trip to a movie set in Italy, where I was expected to deliver results in the form of a full length Electronic Press Kit interview with a bristly movie star who had been avoiding my crew for the entire shoot schedule. The studio had high hopes for an Oscar nomination and locking in any coverage with this eely personality would be a key component to the PR campaign.
I was working as a Senior Publicity Director at the Walt Disney Studios, a job I always described as “glamour-work”. Of course, there were exceptions, like this one, when you have to deal with a prickly man no one has had a good experience with. I arrived on location, a dark and damp half finished hotel on the outskirts of Rome to supervise the shoot before the film wrapped the following day and we lost him to scheduling conflicts and lame celebrity excuses. It was during this interview that my ears pricked up after the standard response “This director is a genius. Blah Blah, Blah…”
He was talking about being satisfied with his life, having just won a Golden Globe, saying, “You know, we start out at one point on a graph, and if you’re lucky, you ascend on the path you want. Most people make choices based on what someone else wants, or for self-preservation or whatever, and they end up over here” and he pointed to a far a way place on his imaginary graph. “I’m still where I want to be”. I shuddered, at first thinking it was the chill in the room, but realized that I was one of the people he was talking about, in fact, that he could quite possibly be speaking directly to me. I was over there – where he was pointing, off the graph. When we completed the interview, I stood up, extended my hand and said, “Congratulations on your award, and thank you so much Mr… “ Instead of taking my hand, he put his right one on my shoulder and pushed me out of his way.
We always laughed off our favorite celebrity foibles with “We’re not curing cancer here, we’re making pizzas”, and while his dismissal was rather rude, what I couldn’t shake was my lack of placement on that imaginary graph. I mean, I held a highly coveted, highly paid job, but at the same, it didn’t feel like it was enough. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I was working in an environment that demanded YES to every possible whim or request. That day in Rome was proof, I thought, remembering how my crew and I had waited for hours, how we were instructed to order a full seafood take out lunch in a place where there isn’t take out or delivery from local restaurants and then set a table with borrowed china and flatware from that restaurant, wait for him to sit down, eat it, and smoke a cigar before we could get our work done. Maybe it was the push that did it, but I knew then that I wanted, needed, a life that existed outside of the land of make believe I worked in. I wanted to cure cancer – or more realistically, something bigger than supplying sycophantic-laden pixie-dust to a grumpy movie star.
When I returned with the interview, I marched into my boss’s office, full of bravado, with plans to give notice. He, in turn, talked me out of making such a rash decision by urging me to tap into my stored vacation time and take a month off. Returning to my desk, determined to ignore the pile of work in front of me, I Googled “Volunteer abroad”. Up popped Habitat for Humanity Global Village. My criteria was pretty simple: 1) a time slot after our big summer films had opened 2) to a place I’d never been 3) where I didn’t speak the language and 4) no one would ask me about Disney or the movie industry. The destination that fit… Thailand. I believed that hard work and quiet meditation would give me the respite I needed to mull over my career malaise. Maybe, at 37, I was going through a mid-life crisis.
Thailand! Once I was formally accepted to the team, my anticipation grew. I didn’t know what to expect; but that was exactly what I wanted, something completely foreign to me, out of my comfort zone. I’d never been to place that required a seventeen hour flight, I wanted to see the giant Sleeping Buddha, the Grand Palace where the Siamese King danced with the schoolteacher, Anna Leonowens, but I also was eager to meet my teammates, the villagers and get down to work. Six weeks before departure, I was basically emailed a packing list, location, the date and time the team should meet in Bangkok and that was it. Traveling to a foreign country with a group of strangers, I could do that. I purchased my ticket through an agent, read my borrowed travel guide on the flight over and then figured it out.
Although seven years have passed, I have vivid memories of the Tip Chang Hotel, the local people we worked with, the colorful meals prepared for us, plates such as braised coconut with basil and banana sticky rice, the mamas taking care not to make it too spicy, exotic fruit I had never seen, the driver, Yo Yo with his Song Tel (two bench) bus that transported us to the lush little village thirty minutes from the Tip Chang, and the joy that our team leaders got from seeing us have fun passing buckets of wet cement in a brigade or digging a 16 ft deep latrine or trying to learn bits of Thai like “chok” (OK) or Lum-thai (delicious!). In fourteen days, we completed two 150 square foot cinder block houses, two rooms a piece with an outdoor cement kitchen area. We were anxious and excited to begin construction on the 100th house in the Lampang Province. The team felt an enormous sense of accomplishment. Working through a torrential rainstorm on our last day, we raised the banner that the local office had printed on our behalf. “Habitat Thailand’s 100th House!”
Our efforts culminated in a dedication ceremony, each team member inscribing their name in cement by the front doors at the request of the new homeowners. Family members knotted strings around each of our wrists, “blessings”, they explained. This simple gesture was meant to bond the good spirits of the village to the person it is tied to, offerings of protection and good luck. Then the men of the house, who had stoically worked alongside us, silent, proud, anxious and excited to have a roof over their head at last, spoke of their gratitude, fighting back the tears in their eyes. Showing this emotion was not an ordinary event, but this was not an ordinary day for any of us. This moment was the reality check that I needed.
Our team leaders literally promised us on that first night in Lampang, at the Dizzy Disco within the Tip Chang, that we would have an experience we would never forget. That was true. I learned to love Thai food, even cook it myself with a great wok my brother gave me and a fabulous cook book “Quick & Easy Thai”, made new friends and was subsequently invited on a future build to Taos by one of those friends, and another build from another volunteer I met on the Taos team, and on and on. But I had discovered a personal ideology during that trip to Thailand, a singular creed that would continue to inspire me over the years when my day job got me down, that of promoting the ideal of affordable shelter, a basic human right.
The work isn’t easy, but it is fun in the sense that you are working together, for a common purpose. By laying bricks and tying together thrush or framing a house, we were learning how to keep out the harsh elements. Mothers, fathers, grandparents no longer have to scavenge for plastic tarps and sticks for a makeshift tent or pieces of corrugated tin and rocks to hold them in place. I’ve hauled limestone blocks, learned the correct combination of sand, gravel, water and cement for mortar, nailed chicken wire to adobe bricks, swung a sledge hammer, planted gardens, raised frames of houses, worked out in the heat and humidity nailing ironwood together with an 11”cats paw nail puller, and once dug post holes with a soup spoon when the tools weren’t delivered to the job site. We strangers learn to communicate through songs, hand gestures and the universal smile.
There are villages where the water is turned on twice a day for one hour, others, where water is hauled in five gallon drums from wells sometimes a mile away, villages where cell phones are charged at a local stand with a car battery hooked up for this purpose, or where people crowd around a neighbor’s TV set, watching movies under an impossibly opaque evening sky. During a disaster relief trip, I witnessed New Orleans’ ongoing struggle to climb back from the flood that leveled it, and I have clung to the familiar, like a cold Coca Cola or a game of Scrabble with fellow teammates. It is a lesson in humility to be a mere observer, non-judgmental of these extreme living conditions for ten to fourteen days. You learn this virtue over and over. It is never mastered.
When I search for and answer to what brings me back again and again, friends will try to fill in the blank, “You get to travel to some incredible places”, but that isn’t it. I looked forward to the new friends I will meet and the laughter of children when they see their smiling faces on a camera’s digital screen. I liked to wake up and follow simple directions that didn’t include complicated personalities. I wanted to meet like-minded people. I enjoyed being of service, but more importantly, I felt like I needed to be there. It wasn’t that I was giving of myself selflessly; it was that I was gaining something as well; a feeling of usefulness that separated my life’s work from my day job, an experience that fueled my energy tank, which had previously always seemed half-full. That feeling of silent purpose and conviction was what I wanted to attain and retain again and again.
I savor the quiet mind I possess when I return to a different life hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away where hot water comes out of a faucet. I’ve slept in a cabin with a dirt floor and a luxury room at London’s 5-Star Dorchester Hotel and I love both, but I cannot deny that when I am on a build site, in the team’s morning circle where we set intentions and discuss the day’s workload, I’ve found something bigger than me or that summer’s blockbuster film. Standing side by side with people, most of whom you will never see again, I can’t help but feel grateful to these families, for letting me into their circle, for allowing me to help, and be part of their community for this short time, creating a place called home.