Charlotte Fairborn returned from Thailand where she spent 3 months volunteering at the Withee Tai Community

Now I am home after my volunteering experience, I have been asked by some friends to give a talk about my time at Withee Tai, and I have decided to call it ‘Withee Tai: the project with the least and the most to do’. Why? Read on, if you are interested!

Travelling to a new place to actually live as a local, with local people, for a few months is such an eye-opening experience, and bears little resemblance to travelling as a tourist. As I settled into my place at Withee Tai in south Thailand, I started to learn about the expectations I had had even without realising I had them – because of my cultural background.  It took me several weeks to adjust to a very different pace of life than I am used to at home and to try to understand what was going on in the minds of the Thai people around me – the way things were done. What were their expectations of me? Would they think X, Y or Z about me when I behaved in a certain way?  How did I convey a desire to help, or a concern, or happiness in a way that they would truly know how I felt? There were some wonderful similarities uniting us – for example, I formed an instant connection with one of the women because I completely shared her sense of humour, despite limited mutual language, which I found fascinating – but there were other things where I could perceive that the ‘way of doing’ or ‘way of thinking’ was just naturally different to my own English upbringing.

On the project description for Withee Tai, it spoke of mainly sharing daily life and helping contribute meaningful activities to the ‘homeschool’.  As I went about learning to be part of the community, I had this perpetual question, ‘where is the school?’. I couldn’t see any parents sitting down with children with books, or teaching them subjects – which is what I understand to be homeschooling.  I had to learn that the true meaning of their Learning Centre is that we are all students of life and that each of us in the community has the opportunity – through freedom of being – to ‘grow up’, to educate ourselves.  In each moment we can work on ourselves to be more patient, more compassionate, more accepting and to quell the ‘inner fight’ within ourselves – and we can live more happily if we are part of a big family (like a tribe).  If we have a problem with something someone else has done, that problem only exists within ourselves, and we can strive daily to resolve this.  To live together in harmony means to dissolve one’s ego and to live without judgement of others.  Talk about a lifetime’s work, eh?!

Of course, it took me some time to understand this.  I turned up, with my bag of European expectations wanting to be useful, active, full of energy and drive to contribute to something great (I think possibly with a mixture most of us volunteers must have, of a cultural predisposition to want to ACHIEVE, to do something positive, part altruism and perhaps a little bit of ego too, to know we ‘did something great’).  It was frankly a real shock to learn that the host families had no more expectations of me than just to be myself and to join in daily life; to be part of the family.  What? You don’t want me to teach children? You don’t want me to build something, or help pick the rice for long hours every day? Of course, the answer was that whatever we contributed would be appreciated and would inspire happiness – but nothing was expected.

After a few weeks of struggling with this bountiful freedom of daily existence, I started to see how much of an opportunity it was to live like this for a while. One of the valuable aspects was about reconnecting with doing things from inner motivation and desire, and not from a sense of ‘should’ or instruction from someone else.  This was a spirit I was keen to celebrate and bring home with me since I am a freelance musician, and want to continually practise playing and practising my violin in a way which doesn’t feel stressed or oppressive – but creative and with love and choice. I am naturally a very proactive person, and this meant I did lots of things because I wanted to – but I learned to embrace that some days it was ok to be lazy and to sit for hours reading a book or to walk by myself; to do something just for me.

So, you may well ask, what did you actually do in daily life? We shared the daily rhythm of yoga, walks together, cooking everything from scratch – sometimes collecting ingredients growing around the houses – and often going to the market. Sometimes we visited the temple, sometimes we accompanied the main host Crue Liam on his regular trips out to meetings to other provinces. Sometimes we learned how to make Thai desserts, did arts and crafts, helped build benches or clear and tidy parts of the community’s environment, built a new hard-standing for the washing area outside the kitchen, mended a roof; before my time, volunteers helped install solar panels and built a clay house. We did lots of gardening, created vegetable gardens, made a huge world map on cloth, and swam in the river. All of this came from mutual agreement or creation; none of it was dictated. When you give friendships time to grow, such lovely creative energy can come from it, who knows what will happen?

It’s so hard to write about something when your experience has been so intense and multi-faceted, but I hope this gives you a taste of Withee Tai. To conclude, I would like to say a few little words to anyone interested in this project.

This project may well suit you if you:

– have an open mind to other ways of living, and are willing to try new things

– can know that anything you find challenging about a new way of being is an opportunity to learn about yourself

– are interested in Buddhism (not everyone there is Buddhist, but there are lots of shared principles)

– believe that your own contribution to life is where to start to make the world a better place – ie. changing yourself, not seeking to change others

– are prepared not to have too much (or any!) instruction from hosts

– desire space away from your routine to see who you can be in a new environment

I had a card on my wall in Thailand which I took out with me, the words of which I truly believe and they helped me often.

They simply say:

‘Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.’

Thank you for reading!