Sheltered Lives


Sheltered Lives
Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai, Thailand

In my home life, I’m quite adept at sitting still. As a traveler, I always seem to have ants in my pants. Even though my entire purpose in coming to Joy’s House was to stay put and relax, I couldn’t resist signing up for one more adventure – a day trip out to Joy and Ulrike’s organic farm to visit The Children’s Shelter Foundation and nearby hot springs. I was the only taker today so was able to simply hop in the back of their car for the 45 minute drive to our remote destination.

There wasn’t exactly an agenda for the visit so I was happy enough to go with the flow. I was introduced to one of the volunteers who was in the middle of teaching maths to three students in an open bamboo hut over a lake. It was quite the classroom! I joined in, helping them with their work, already astounded at how multilingual the children have to be.

Most of the children living here come from various hill tribes around the Thai/Burmese border so they usually arrive speaking their specific native dialect. A higher than usual percentage are also deaf or hearing impaired (which is sadly often the reason they’re abandoned – it becomes unsustainable for poor families to care for a child who can’t earn their keep). In order to get the lines of communication open as quickly and effectively as possible, the first language all new arrivals learn is sign language whether they are hearing impaired or not. This not only allows everyone to talk, it also removes the stigma still attached to deafness and hearing impairment in this, and many other, parts of the world. The second linguistic aim is to teach the children Thai. They are schooled at the farm until they’re proficient and then enrolled in local public schools. Unfortunately, the infrastructure doesn’t support schooling for the hearing impaired children who continue to receive an education at the farm. Although there is a core full time staff, the Foundation still relies on the help of volunteers to keep the school running. This by necessity, makes English the third common language and because many of the volunteers come from Germany – Ulrike’s homeland – German makes a very handy fourth.

At the end of the class, the children gave me a very enthusiastic tour of the farm, pointing out all the various fruits and vegetables growing there and picking samples for me to try along the way – I’ve never eaten a star fruit straight from a tree before – yum! They showed me their sleeping quarters and classrooms. I met some of the adults working there and learned that where possible, Joy and Ulrike have hired the parents of children who would otherwise have been abandoned in order to allow the families to remain together and support themselves.

Lunchtime rolled around and all the children disappeared to eat elsewhere while I joined Joy, Ulrike and the volunteers in a delicious Thai feast. After lunch, it wasn’t clear what I should be doing so I stayed nearby and played with a few of the children – or rather they played with my phone while I watched. It was astounding to see these children who, not so long ago, were living subsistence lifestyle in the jungle, know exactly how to work an iPhone – if any further proof is needed of the intuitive nature of Apple technology, here it is! They didn’t care for Florence and the Machine though. At one point, I heard one of the boys singing to himself and took it to be a Thai children’s song until I recognised the tune… he was singing Cydni Lauper’s ‘True Colours’ complete with sign language dance moves!

A little later on, still not sure what the plan was, I was invited to help paint a mural on a brick wall which was a lot of messy fun. My creativity in not in the fine arts so I wasn’t the least bit concerned when my contribution was painted over in an over zealous bout of paint splattering. It was a truly joyous thing to watch the children having so much fun and expressing themselves through their art.

No sooner had we cleaned up than the other children started to arrive home from school and everyone headed down to the lake for some Tarzan swing action. If everything the children had shown me today was second nature to them, scaling massive trees and swinging out over the water so naturally and fearlessly was clearly their first! None of the children I know would ever be allowed, or even able, to perform these astounding feats, especially not without taking their uniform off first!

The sun started to set and the children disappeared again for their evening rituals. It had been a while since I’d seen Joy and Ulrike but assumed we must be leaving soon if we were going to make the hot springs. I went back to the main house and waited and waited and waited. I knew they hadn’t left because I could see their car. It got dark and cold, the children were all in bed and still no signs of leaving. I wasn’t worried but I was increasingly annoyed at simply not knowing what was going on or how much longer I had to wait.

They emerged at around 7pm to tell me what I’d already deduced – we wouldn’t be going to the hot springs. I was so disappointed considering how much I’d been looking forward to it and that I’d paid a premium price for the excursion. Having being told it was a half day trip, I was also peeved that the whole of my second last day was now gone without so much as book to read or pen and paper to write with. Had I known, I could have been prepared. Ah well, I remembered my mantra from yesterday “It’s for charity” and recited it in my head all the way home. After all, I had a wonderful day and am in awe of the dedicated and selfless lives of service led Joy and Ulrike. We got back around 8.30pm and thoughtfully, they’d called ahead to ask that some dinner be put aside for me.

I ate alone and was secretly glad not to have to make small talk with strangers. Today’s adventure has been more than a worthy distraction, it’s also given me perspective on the extraordinary privilege of my own life and the challenges other people are forced to overcome. Not a bad thing to have in mind as I square up to face my final day.



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