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13 Jan 2018
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IMG 6342Be warned - the night before joining an International Volunteer work camp can pre empt a stress dream - particularly if you and your wife's combined ages total more than that of half a dozen physically and mentally agile University graduates ( or seven would-be graduates.)

The long and the short of enlisting with the Mirror Foundation as a willing but apprehensive 'sixty something' is that the experience may constitute a sharp and rather uneasy learning curve but it is far from a nightmare. The 'education process' commences early on - to be specific at one's first communal breakfast and Orientation meeting.

Lesson One

'We are here to work'.

Whether it be 'indoors' via helping to teach the children of the various surrounding Hill Tribe communities - or 'outdoors' via labouring upon their own subsistence farming land - it soon becomes evident that this is going to be no vacation because Hill Tribe life is no holiday.

I can only comment upon the 'outdoor' option as this is what my wife and I opted for. It may be harsh and unforgiving at times - but always fruitful and wholly embracing. Nobody said that 'enlightenment' would be easy - if it was we wouldn't all be here. The learning curve becomes steeper still with the growing and often awkward awareness that these Hill Tribe people have so much  to teach us sophisticated 'outsiders' about how 'civilised' life can and should be led. 

But let's return to that first breakfast and initial Orientation meeting. Impeccably prepared and organically nutritious home cooked  food served in breathtaking outdoor mountainous surroundings sets the scene for Mirror Foundation volunteering. One is suddenly appreciative of the need to 'fuel up' for the day ahead. We are now in the Far East where people 'eat to live' as opposed to the opposite commercial junk food philosophy increasingly sold to us in the West.

Lesson Two

'Camaraderie is the order of the day'

Okay - by and large it's a disturbingly youthful companionship - but 'volunteering' is all about learning to live outside of one's usual comfort zone - and fortunately this applies equally to both the young and old. So apart from age difference one soon discovers one has far more in common with those sat either side of you at meal times than at first imagined.

Lesson Three

'Mirror Foundation Project Leaders may run a work camp but they take no prisoners'.

Project leaders demand their 'pound of flesh ' (which may be a very conservative estimate for the 'sixty something' volunteer) because they are passionate and committed to the Hill Tribe 'Cause'. Of course the individual welfare of the volunteer is important but the collective truth is that the aims of the Mirror Foundation are paramount. A Project leaders' primary task is to ensure the vision of the Mirror Foundation is kept firmly in sight at all times ( irrespective of heat mirages and dust storms).

Our particular leader - Nikki - was well acquainted with keeping targets in sight having successfully swum the English Channel in the past. Here in the hills of North Thailand Nikki is now keeping volunteers' feet firmly on the ground with constant practical advice about 'spray for the day' ( insect repellent and sun cream) and generally keeping oneself safe and .... on schedule. But first and foremost she is the upholder of the Foundation's principles and aims and the 'paths' that need to be taken to achieve these. She is infectiously passionate about the 'cause' and if she occasionally has to 'boss' things to get volunteers back on the straight and narrow track - so be it. Of course she has hosts of other jobs and responsibilities but her sense of fun and commitment ensure that us 'workers' see her primarily as 'one of the gang'. Albeit a work gang. At the end of the day Nikki skippers a happy ship - it's sink or swim under her captaincy - but woe betide you if you harbour thoughts of treading water.

And then there is the other 'leader by example ' that one encounters on 'outdoor' duties. Enter Guru P. Akong.

This 52 year old 'strip of a lad ' is a member of the Akha Hill Tribe and has been a member of the Mirror Foundation staff for the past fourteen years. He leads the 'outside' working parties and it was vaguely heartening for my wife and I to discover that he was only one decade younger than us - although worrying to witness how long and determinedly he could swing a scythe or heavy duty hoe in the midday sun.

P.Akong's motivational midday meal break talks about the political  and economic plight of the Akha and neighbouring Hill Tribes never failed to raise the work group's spirit and sense of purpose. Just as well - the prospect of hacking out another paddy field beneath an unforgiving mid afternoon Thai sun - can prove to be something of a 'spiritual' close examination. But hack slash and rake we did - regularly uplifted by P. Akong's Thai chain gang chants that none of us fully understood - but roughly translated we think as -:

"Oggy oggy oggy"!! ...which depending upon the afternoon temperature invoked several different chanted replies - some of which are not printable.

Which brings us to the 'third party' of the Mirror Foundation - the volunteers themselves. The 'outdoors' volunteers group averaged around a dozen or more of us - too many to name individually. And perhaps this is somehow poetic because the success of a Volunteering working party is measured by its 'group identity'. And my wife and I consider ourselves fortunate and more fulfilled by being 'at one' with this particular 'outdoor' work group.

Nationalities and backgrounds were hugely varied. We would have been hugely disappointed had they not been. Australia, China ( including one immediate descendant of a Chinese Hill Tribe ) Brazil, England, Germany, Japan and the USA were all represented as we stood knee deep together in mud hacking out a terraced paddy field belonging to the Lahu Tribe - or stumbled up a hillside stream with large rocks and stones to create an irrigation dam for the Akha Tribe. If you want to break down International barriers - stand shoulder to shoulder and pass on a boulder to your Earthly brother or sister - but try not to don't drop it on his or her toe.

"Time flies when you're having fun" was a common ironic muttering in the midday heat as sweat dripped from dirt stained brows - but the truth is - it does. Fun and joviality is a universal common entity. If you don't believe me come and meet the people of Thailand. Spiritualists have gone to pains for thousands of years to explain that 'enlightenment' should not be complex and onerous - it should be light hearted and fun. The Hill Tribe people of Thailand are exemplary of a fun loving approach to life. As a direct result our work group approach to our shared experience was fun.

As 'sixty something ' Westerners joining a predominantly youthful International Volunteers work group  - did we feel a bit vulnerable?

Undoubtedly.

But if Hill Tribe communities whose life styles and traditions are a hundred  times more vulnerable than ours wake up each morning in their very basic bamboo huts with huge smiles on their faces - how can we ever justify feeling apprehensive? 

Has this 'Over Sixties' review of Volunteering overlooked anything?

Undoubtedly.

What's the solution?

Enlist with a Mirror Foundation project.

There is nothing to fear - except the belated realisation that at 'sixty something' one still has so much to learn from others - not least from the Hill Tribe people of the Far East.

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