Scurrying into El Hormiguero…(The anthill)

From our first week in the bustling metropolis that is Santiago, we were ready to get ourselves back to volunteering in somewhat more sedate surroundings-and the El Hormiguero in El Monte proved to be just that! Another placement that we had found through the HelpX website, with the simple yet tantalising description:

In the midway between Santiago and the surf-paradise Pichilemu, we have our creative centre “El Hormiguero” (the anthill).

We are exploring in eco-building, natural pools, aquaponics crops, arts, music and any interesting expression of new lifestyles.

With our eagerness to find alternative lifestyles, building methods and my much coveted ‘life skill acquisition’, on the face of things this place looked like it could tick all of the boxes-and so we had three weeks or so to find out-El Monte here we come!

So then….where to start? Well as always, the adventure begins with a journey, in this case a mere 1 hour bus into the unknown. We managed to get on the right bus, we just had a little hiccup with getting off in the wrong spot-probably a twenty minute or so walk from where we should have been. In theory no problem, but with your backpacks on and the midday heat beating down on your head, that twenty minutes takes on a whole new significance! Still, nothing that couldn’t be fixed with an empanada and fresh juice stop-and so our first introduction to the charm and friendliness of El Monte washed over us. Yes that’s right, you wouldn’t expect a vendor of empanadas and fresh juice to be a significant meeting, but the man in the square of El Monte was an absolute ray of sunshine and he would continue to shine for our entire time at the anthill! At this point it’s worth pointing out that El Monte is not exactly a destination for tourists, or for want of a better word, Gringos! As such we kinda stick out like a sore thumb, but that only served to encourage kindness and warmth from pretty much everyone we met over the following three weeks or so.
I digress, back to our journey…once we had located the main square, we had basic walking directions that would take us to the anthill and so we hit the road for another twenty minutes or so until we saw the palm trees-the significant landmark that would signify our arrival at our destination. You see, the anthill, aside from the description as given above, is a palm tree farm!

Well baked, slightly sweaty and reddened in the face, we negotiated our way to the entrance to find our hosts for the build up until Christmas, and for sure what we found was both intriguing and bewildering. Soon enough we were offered a beer and set about getting to know Vicente and Martina, some German guys that were already there volunteering, and also the various animals that we would find ourselves growing to know and love. Alpacas, emus, a donkey, a peacock, two peahens, chickens, ducks, dogs and cats-to say there was some variety is an understatement! And all of this in the setting of a traditional adobe farm, albeit it with some wonderfully quirky design features. Impossible to describe effectively with words, a montage seems most fitting to give you an impression of the location:

As I’m sure you can see, this place was quite special, and it would only get more magical. It turned out that our period of volunteering coincided with Martina and Vicente’s wedding, which they were going to be having at the farm! So it was up to us all to landscape and decorate the grounds in readiness for 400 guests to celebrate their union-and what a fantastic few weeks it turned out to be. Initially we had to clear the palm tree forest of all debris as that was where the ceremony and meal was to be-and this was the worst job of all! It may surprise you to know that palm tree leaves are pretty damn sharp, and all of us suffered greatly with significant punctures and lacerations caused by these pesky leaves! Fortunately for us we were there at the tail end of this job, the German guys had been pretty much focussed on the forest for their entire stay, and it was really starting to take its toll on their enthusiasm!
Still, once the forest was cleared there was more varied work to do, and luckily for us it was the period of time where you could really see the transformation taking place.
After a few days of us being there, we were also lucky enough to welcome the arrival of a couple from Leeds, Rob and Charlie, a couple who happen to have extremely similar ideals and plans as ourselves-albeit they are a little further down the line than us. This proved to be amazing, we shared so much, and I would say that they have became close friends. They were both extremely knowledgeable about various alternative farming methods and construction ideas, and it was fantastic to just sit and talk about hopes and plans (not dreams, plans!).

Back to the work, Martina and Vicente have a booming landscaping business work on projects throughout Santiago…reason that their business is booming? Well, they’re pretty damn creative, that’s why-and so we were tasked with the job of implementing their creative ideas, on their property, for their wedding…No pressure! Working with Rob and Charlie was brilliant, and in our time there we managed to build two beached areas, a water garden, some mighty fine gates, got involved with some adobe walling, and an immaculately decorated venue for the wedding-as well as Rob and Charlie getting to grips with a number of bridges, sprucing up a gypsy caravan, relocating the aquaponics and generally being open to our constant questioning!

In addition to all of the work at the farm, we were blessed with the wonder of El Monte, for here we would find warm and friendly folk who would fall over themselves to make us welcome. The daily Christmas market in the local plaza, and free capoeira lessons at the wonderful local community centre. Despite the fact that there was no common ground in terms of language-it turned out to be possibly one of the most friendly martial arts clubs I have ever been to, they even started having lessons in the town plaza for eveyone to watch. We loved it, and soon enough Rob and Charlie were hooked as well-a welcome distraction from the work at the farm for sure!

Twice a week we would get our capoeira on, and the rest of the week was dedicated to graft, and the occasional two litre bottle of El Gato wine!! The work was full on, after all there was an immovable deadline to meet-so it wasn’t as if we could leave it to the next volunteers if we didn’t finish-so finish we did…Culminating in a spectacular wedding!

It was a fantastic ending to our time in El Monte, after three and a half weeks we had made some special friendships and enjoyed a magical time at the farm…Now Christmas was upon us, and the grafitti laden streets of Valpairiso awaited!

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That was then, this is Laos

After a few days in Chiang Mai we set ourselves for pastures new once again, this time we were heading for Laos and the experiences a new country and culture have to offer.

Both of us were looking forward to further challenges, things had gotten pretty comfortable in Thailand, the tourist route so well travelled that it was rare you ever felt like you were really out of your comfort zone.
Laos has the reputation of being 10-15 years behind Thailand in terms of its tourist industry. Given its recent history that’s quite understandable…Per capita, Laos is the most bombed country in the world…..Yeah that’s right, hard to believe isn’t it? To give you an idea of the extent of the bombing, if you averaged out the frequency of US bombing between 1964-1973 it would equate to a bombing mission every eight minutes, 24 hours a day for the whole 9 years. Laos had more bombs dropped on it during that time than were dropped by all sides in the whole of WW2….. And all part of the Vietnam war, a conflict that they were neutral in.
Some of the history of the country was covered in Manufacturing Consent, the book by Noam Chomsky, so I had an idea of some of the historical background, and was eager to learn more about the country and how it is recovering from the devastation caused during the Indochina wars.

So we literally squeezed ourselves into a minibus, and set off for he Chiang Khong/Huay Xai international border crossing. The journey was a pretty hair-raising one to say the least, our driver fancying himself as Sebastian Loeb in the making, tires screeching as we overtake lorries while hurtling round blind corners-little did we know that this would be good preparation for the journeys to follow in the mountains of Laos!
Giving us some respite from the terror onslaught, we stopped off in Chiang Rai to visit Wat Rong Khun-otherwise known as the White Temple. Neither Jo or I had read up on the temple beforehand, and so we weren’t entirely sure what to expect. On approach the first impression is that you are beholding something truly magnificent-like when Superman first sees the Fortress of Solitude gleaming in the sunshine, quite breath-taking:

Like a beaming sparkly beacon of Buddhism....

Like a beaming sparkly beacon of Buddhism….

On closer inspection, things start to get a little bit weird…Take a look at the photo above again, notice anything? Anything like the bizarre statues in the foreground?! That was just the start of things, around the grounds, hanging from trees were the heads of various horror film characters-Predator, Freddy Kruger, Pinhead & Jarhead all featuring. Things got even stranger inside, where the temples walls were depicted with images of Michael Jackson, Hello Kitty, Superman, Terminator and Harry Potter! Turns out that this is actually privately owned by an artist called Chalermchai Kositpipat, and is actually an art-exhibit in the style of a Buddhist temple. It does serve as an active temple, but more of a tourist attraction than anything else. It really was quite bizarre-especially not knowing its background before visiting!

Quite magnificent in approach...but look a little closer

Quite magnificent in approach…but look a little closer

What you doing hanging around here...you should head to the temple!

What you doing hanging around here…you should head to the temple!

Somewhat baffled, we plunged ourselves back into our own personal vehicle of terror and set off to complete our journey to the border. Our entrance to Laos was rather more sedate, over the 4th Friendship Bridge that straddles the mighty Mekong River that separates Thailand and Laos.

The Mekong!

The Mekong!

And so that was it, we’d made it-we were in Laos, the third country on our South East Asian adventure. Our first stop was a night in Huay Xai, a small town near the border crossing where many travellers rest up before setting off into Northern Laos. Time for us to familiarise ourselves with the currency, the Kip, and attempt the language. The currency is particularly difficult, currently £1 is worth 12,000 Kip, so you’re always dealing with large numbers when paying for things. The conversion isn’t difficult, just simplify things so that you’re working at 10,000 kip to the pound and you’ll always be overestimating costs-no problems….It’s just getting used to having to pay 100,000 Kip for a night in a guesthouse, it feels like you’re handing over a lot of money!

Fed, watered and rested, we got up early the next morning to make our way for our first stop proper, Luang Namtha, and our first efforts at travels on a local bus. If we thought that the previous days’ journey was terrifying, that was just the warm up. Now faced with roads that snake and carve their way through the mountains, we got on a decrepit old bus that looked like it was ready for the scrapheap. The general rule of thumb on the bus seemed to be, if there’s a modicum of space, then there’s room for one more-and soon we were jam packed to the rafters for departure. So we headed for the mountains, at some points I think that it would have been quicker to walk up some of the inclines, and then during the descents we would be treated to the occasional wrecked truck lying prostrate in the ditch, just a nice little reminder of the perils that the road offers! It took us roughly 6 hours to travel 150Km, and yes that’s only an average of 25km/h, but I assure you that the downhill sections were perilously quick!

Eventually we made it, shaken & stirred, but in one piece and we headed into the town to explore Luang Namtha. The town services a national park area in the Northern Highlands of Laos predominantly known for its hiking and kayaking-given that we’re here in dry season, a jungle hike was the obvious choice. The town is literally centred on one main road that passes through-and there wasn’t really much else there at all. A few guesthouses, a couple of restaurants and some tour offices-that pretty much sums it up! So we found a guide and opted for a single day hike-the following morning we would be setting off into the Nam Ha protected area for a day in the jungle. It was that evening that we first encountered Lao style balut at the street market that was quite something else-not that we actually tried it, but for those of you that don’t know balut is a developing duck embryo that is boiled and eaten in the shell. Literally you have a ducks egg with the top open, and the head being presented for you to chow down on, definitely something that sits outside of our comfort zone at the moment!

Onto the hike, and it really was great to get out into the jungle for the day. The hiking was of moderate difficulty, which was perfect for just the single day. We passed through primary and secondary jungle areas, before finishing the hike through some rice farms-really was quite stunning:

Rough in the jungle, in the jungle...

Rough in the jungle, in the jungle…

...Inner inner jungle

…Inner inner jungle

Look closely and you'll see LOADS and LOADS of spiders!

Look closely and you’ll see LOADS and LOADS of spiders!

Leaves...Big in Laos!

Leaves…Big in Laos!

Great example of jungle bridging!

Great example of jungle bridging!

As we emerge from the jungle into the valley

As we emerge from the jungle into the valley

One of the rice farms we hiked through

One of the rice farms we hiked through

A look back at our travels!

A look back at our travels!

Fantastic to experience and very much washed the memory of the previous days’ bus journey away, only problem being that we now had to think of the bus to our next stop, Luang Prabang-a mere 9 hours across the mountains…

Double bubble night trains, Chiang Mai, the good life with a hippy called Willow….And eating bugs

Still somewhat dazed from the previous three days of silence, we headed back to Koh Samui with the intent of getting to Chiang Mai as soon as possible. Given our enjoyment of the night train on the way down, we decided that we were going to take back-to-back night trains and skip spending another night in Bangkok, just push on through and head north in readiness for our Thai boxing camp in Pai.
The familiar combination of bus, boat, mini bus once again punctuated our day-and we managed to get to the train station and book a ticket with no problems at all, despite the efforts of one ‘friendly local’ who advised that we should get the bus through him, as trains get booked up 4 months in advance. Always worth checking for yourselves in Thailand, often being friendly and helpful is a ‘commissioned service’!
Anyway, our train journey was notable simply for the fact that Jo and I absolutely chewed two poor lads ears off, after three days of effective isolation-they really didn’t stand a chance sat opposite us, we just didn’t shut up until it was apparent that’d we’d induced them both into a waking coma!

Arriving in Bangkok and we increased our traveller kudos rating by plumping to use the showers in Bangkok Railway station…Something of a necessity to pull off our B2B journeys without offending fellow travellers with our ‘aroma’. Showers safely navigated, definitely something of an ‘experience’, we spent the day in Bangkok and set off on our second night train on the bounce. Again we had the opportunity to talk to our hearts content with a few patient listeners on the journey to Chiang Mai, and quickly the morning came round and the quite beautiful scenery surrounding us greeted our morning gaze. The landscape was quite different now, and we were now treated to gorgeous countryside and rolling mountains-welcome to the North of Thailand, and Chiang Mai.

Many people rave about Chiang Mai as one of their favourite cities in Thailand, and it’s easy to see why once you’ve spent some time having a walk around. Unlike the chaotic and daunting nature of Bangkok, Chiang Mai is a much more relaxed city-and at its centre there is the ‘Old City’, a former walled area which used to form the epicentre of this northern Thai kingdom capital. Within the old city you have a myriad of temples (no surprises there!) and a number of funky coffee shops and bars to explore, as well as some great street markets to grab some bargains from. For now our exploring of Chiang Mai was going to be short a sweet, as we were due to arrive with Willow in a couple of days-so more about this city in a later post. Of course I got the opportunity to take some snaps to share though……

An obvious first stop for tourists-the museum!!

An obvious first stop for tourists-the museum!!

This is Wat Sang Fen, notice the unexplained Donald Duck statue...

This is Wat Sang Fen, notice the unexplained Donald Duck statue…

To think that these carvings adorn the same temple as the previously highlighted Donald Duck statue!

To think that these carvings adorn the same temple as the previously highlighted Donald Duck statue!

Wat Chedi Luang in all its glory

Wat Chedi Luang in all its glory

Found this story particularly amusing

Found this story particularly amusing

Loves a good recline does Buddha!

Loves a good recline does Buddha!

Hundreds, if not a couple of thousand, ribbons are tied from the ceiling by visitors to symbolise wishes

Hundreds, if not a couple of thousand, ribbons are tied from the ceiling by visitors to symbolise wishes

The main shrine at Wat Phra Singh

The main shrine at Wat Phra Singh

Wat Phra Singh has one temple where they exclude women, we don't know why, but here it is for you all to enjoy!

Wat Phra Singh has one temple where they exclude women, we don’t know why, but here it is for you all to enjoy!

Guess what, another impressive golden Buddha shrine!

Guess what, another impressive golden Buddha shrine!

Prayer flags in the wind...

Prayer flags in the wind…

Having done a little exploring of the city, and destroying a porcelain soap dish in the hotel bathroom with my head (!), our next mission was to navigate our way to Doi Saket, and the hill tribe permaculture farm found by Jo on AirBnB where we were going to be spending the next couple of days. After falling foul of my increasingly poor navigation skills, it seems that my internal compass has gone completely haywire since we have been in Asia, we found our way to Warorot Market and got on the bus to Doi Saket. The instructions to get to the farm were simple, “get off the bus by the Seven Eleven in Doi Saket and find a taxi to go to Willow and Buti’s farm, all the taxi drivers should know where it is”.
Sounded easy enough-we managed to get the bus there no problems, then the fun started. First up, there are no ‘taxis’ in Doi Saket as you or I would think of them, there are only motorbike taxis. Secondly, there seemed to be a distinct lack of motorbike taxis when we arrived, and after about twenty minutes or so we managed to locate one…Just the one though, and obviously he had no idea where Willow & Buti’s farm was! No great problem as he borrowed someone’s phone to call ahead and get directions, and soon enough it was decided that Jo would hop on and get to the farm, and then he would come back to pick me up. At this point is dawns on you that you’re about to discover what a ride on the back of a motorbike would be like when carrying a ruddy great big rucksack-obviously Jo got to experience that first hand straight off the bat, while I sat on the street and contemplated it for the next 25 minutes or so while I waited for our trusty steed to return! Eventually another taxi turned up and I was ushered onto the back, and what followed was a full on white knuckle ride as I held on for grim life on the back of this bike…All the time hoping that if I did fall off, then I would be lucky enough to land on my back pack and just be left in the road doing an impression of a turtle on it’s shell! A few wrong turns, and a couple of random farms later, and we finally arrive at Willow & Buti’s, and little did I know what we were about to discover.
Obviously Jo had already been there for about twenty minutes as I arrived, and as I walked to the kitchen she was already in deep conversation with our host, Willow.

Now Willow wasn’t what I expected whatsoever, but more fool me for having any expectations anyway! He is an 84 year old fantabulous story teller, originally from California, and having lived quite the incredible life. Immediately I was greeted with warmth and excitement, and instantly quizzed on my date of birth so that he could ascertain my Taoist birth animal….As it turns out I am a Golden Sheep, and only 24 hours from being a Horse, something quite spectacular it would seem! Willow was a Horse himself, and Jo is a Fire Snake-apparently each animal has a very specific set of characteristics and this was his way of immediately understanding those who come to visit….He seemed pretty happy with our arrival, and so our education began.
First of all a snippet of Willows life, he used to be a psychiatrist in San Francisco and lived in Haight Ashbury through the summer of love-he had a life full of material riches but had his own form of enlightenment though hallucinogenic experimentation and gave it all up to live the life of a hippy, and to travel the world and experience life in its fullest. For three years he lived without speech, and he travelled through India and Nepal living as a sadhu-from there he has travelled extensively and set up communities for off the gird living in many locations. When 9/11 hit, he was in Hawaii-and the disaster was the prompt for him to leave the United States and come to Thailand, that and some disagreement with the police it would seem….
As with all great story tellers, some of the tales were beyond comprehension, and it was difficult to believe that one person had led this life-but if you met Willow then I would be surprised if you were not captivated as we were.
Buti is his wife who is part of a hill tribe in this area of Thailand, and she was an absolute force of nature! Rather regrettably, she was leaving the farm for a family funeral on our arrival at the farm, and she returned the day before we left-so we didn’t get to know Buti as well as Willow. For sure in just the small amount of time that we did have we appreciated the sheer energy and knowledge of the woman as she buzzed round the farm and demonstrated her immense cooking skills on the open fire.

This brings me onto his life today, and the farm that he and his hill tribe wife are building. This permaculture homestead has everything that you would need to return to village life, take yourself off grid, and lead a wholly sustainable life. Fruit and vegetables grow all around you, there are chickens and ducks, a swimming pond and various quarters for people to stay. Basically they invite people to stay at the farm and work with them on projects in return for subsidised food and lodgings. We had happened on the place through AirBnB so we were ‘luxury guests’ to begin with, but soon enough we had agreed to stay on a couple more days as helpers! For £8 a day we got three meals and accommodation for the both of us, and we simply had to help with things like watering the farm, feeding the ducks & chickens and joining in with the cooking duties for everyone.
Others we met there were there longer term and had the freedom to take on projects of their own; for example a French couple who were there had built a pond, a British/Australian couple had started developing a couple of ‘Jacuzzi baths’ from some concrete cylinders that were left over from a well, and just prior to our arrival a guy from Australia had installed a drip feed irrigation system!

Jo and I felt that this was our first real living experience on our travels, something that we could envisage as a way of life rather than a ‘holiday novelty’. Simple things really made the difference, Jo learnt how to build a fire for us to cook on, and we managed to go to the local market to get supplies for the group for the evening. That may sound simple, but three of us were going to the market and there were only two push bikes, so Jo and I volunteered to run a leg of the journey each-no mean feat at 8km in the Thai sunshine. Jo set off on the outward journey on foot first, and made remarkably good time-actually arriving at the village before I got there on the bike, having given her a thirty minute head start. Once at the market we set about our business, bought the supplies we needed as well as some cake…and some crickets to eat for later, yeah that’s right, we decided to give eating bugs a go as well-we were getting seriously native! Having had the luxury of two wheels for the journey to the market, the second leg of my duathlon was upon us and I set off on the run back-this being notable simply for the meanness of Jo an Ivan, breezing past me on their bikes, and then slowing to an equal pace to me only when they were about 50m ahead. Seriously, for ages they were coasting along, chatting away having a nice ride in the country, while I was pounding the hard yards behind them, trying to catch up and join in. They claim that this was non intentional….But as the sweat poured down my brow I was pretty sure that they were just teasing me!

Everyone we met there was really interesting and lovely, and it was great to find this alternative way of travel that so many were experiencing. For us it has opened up a door to sustainable travel, and now we are registered with a website called HelpX and are looking at similar permaculture projects in South America to get involved in. This definitely wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but for sure it opened our minds to something a bit different. I suppose it’s just about finding luxury in the more simple and natural things, and taking yourself away from mass consumerisation….As Willow would say, it’s about getting back to village life….And yes, part of that may be eating bugs, and as it happens-they were OK, a good source of protein, a little nutty, and crunchy in texture!

The view from our new home at Willows farm

The view from our new home at Willows farm

View was pretty spectacular at sunset too!

View was pretty spectacular at sunset too!

Bursts of colour to be found everywhere

Bursts of colour to be found everywhere

Getting involved with cooking for the 'team'

Getting involved with cooking for the ‘team’

This is Rosella and makes the most wonderful tea-a staple drink during our time there

This is Rosella and makes the most wonderful tea-a staple drink during our time there

Drying out tea and corn for use in the kitchen

Drying out tea and corn for use in the kitchen

The chicken coup-which Jo and I actually thought was a guest room-it was amazing!

The chicken coup-which Jo and I actually thought was a guest room-it was amazing!

Jacuzzi progress to date

Jacuzzi progress to date

A herb garden spiral build by one volunteer

A herb garden spiral build by one volunteer

Our little corner of the farm

Our little corner of the farm

One of the volunteers, Ivan,' finessing' the pond

One of the volunteers, Ivan,’ finessing’ the pond

Some of the growing beds that supply the farm

Some of the growing beds that supply the farm

The HelpX volunteer accommodation

The HelpX volunteer accommodation