“WOW!” Her record stuck on the word for the next few minutes. She turned to me earnestly. “I rike brood”. “Brood” was spilling down the cobbles where stray hounds fought to lap it up. The Thais babbled to each other feverishly - maybe they had never seen such a delighted Japanese girl. Or even a Japanese girl. This was not where foreigners came. It seemed a crude way to end a cow’s life; a few swift blows to the head with a hammer and our barbeque gave up its consciousness. (Six others from the same herd had already been devoured by tigers.)
I was in Chiang Dao, in northern Thai jungle. My friend and project manager, Jimmy, was about to realize his dream of building a yoga and meditation retreat high in the hills amid his fledgling coffee plantations. I’d volunteered to help and had brought my Japanese tutor with us.
The trek made us light headed. The altitude thinned along with the trail, and before long I was facing a wall of cool mud with instructions to climb. As promised, it delivered me to the 45 degree gradient that would soon be Chiang Dao’s premier sky retreat.
Jungle noises echoed in surround sound, faint cow bells jangled amongst the mist and trees, Chiang Dao mountain nodded mysteriously across the valley. I pulled a wasp from my ear and marched over to receive orders. I was building a house! On the mountain! What had been jungle when I woke up soon began to look like somewhere I would be able to sleep, eat, live, meditate, drink fresh coffee, eat fresh bananas and sear fresh steak.
I learnt a lot that weekend about survival in the jungle: what to eat, what to avoid, what stings, what itches and what heals, where to get water. I found out that a banana tree will take water containing anything from bleach to faeces, suck it up, filter and purify it, then shoot it back, drinkable, into the soil.
The land is incredibly fertile, new and uncontaminated by years of farming chemicals. Jimmy’s hillside nursery of fledgling Arabica coffee plants would be producing natural highs in three years. Lipton also has their stake in the area, buying tea from the locals whose plants we had to pass on the way up the mountain.
I was in giddy awe at the whole process. If we needed a beam, we chopped down a tree. A spoon? We carved some bamboo. For the roof we wove palm leaves. Our chateau was being built with an axe/hammer hybrid, a spade, machetes and bits of wire. When I floated the possibility of a high altitude martial arts training camp, Jimmy responded, as true visionaries do, with, “Why not?”
At our final lunch of the weekend, we stretched a tarpaulin over the new beams of our bamboo floor and ate fried rice from banana leaves with bamboo spoons. The mountain drifted between the clouds in the distance, winking at our achievement.